Saturday 4th April
I had a conversation recently with someone who’d served with the Royal Marines. Some years ago he’d been sent to a remote location high above the Arctic Circle. What he remembered about it most wasn’t the snow or the cold or even the Northern Lights. It was the deep silence. Each night, when the wind had dropped, he’d gone out into the freezing air and experience an absence of sound that he’d never known before.
And he likened that silence to the silence that now hangs over our city every evening. Here within the City Walls it is always remarkably peaceful, but for the last ten days the silence has sometimes been overwhelming. No traffic, no human voices, no aircraft overhead. When in its history has Chichester ever been so quiet?
Silence has many forms and meanings. There is the silence of fear, the silence of secrecy, the silence of the night, the silence of an empty church. What we call ‘silence’ is often in fact a level and quality of sound that we find relaxing and unobtrusive: the kind of silence that we might experience in a remote part of the downs on a summer’s day.
Our present silence is unnatural and some would call it eerie. But it does, nevertheless, offer us a unique chance to quieten ourselves and learn to be still. Christopher Jamison, the former Abbot of Worth describes silence as ‘the carpet on which we pray’ – making me think of those beautiful carpets in some mosques on which the faithful kneel each day! And Psalm 62 begins with that beautiful line, ‘On God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.’
Friday 3rd April
I’ve conducted seven funerals over the last week – none of them connected to coronavirus. What has given them particular poignancy has been the inability of myself, or any of the mourners, to exchange even a hand shake, let alone a hug. Last Friday we held a funeral service in church, which will probably be the last of its kind for several months, and it was pitiful, when the service was over, to bid farewell to the coffin and see the mourners left totally bereft – unable to hold each other in their grief and unable to go and share in any kind of wake.
At present, here in Chichester, there seems to be an outward sense that all is calm and manageable, but indirectly the pandemic is taking its toll. The cost in terms of mental wellbeing is certainly heavy, and the financial cost is no doubt heavier still. The national demand for universal credit has soared, and it’s hard to believe that a significant number of local people are not in severe financial hardship. The ongoing effect of all this is likely to be long-lived and it will inevitably be the most poor and vulnerable who will suffer most.
How can we reach out to one another with comfort and reassurance under such circumstances? Our starting point must be prayer – not as an escape from action but as an expression of our concern and our determination to do all that we can to respond to one another’s needs. Prayer is not – as is often suggested – a technique aimed at achieving spiritual equilibrium and inner peace. It is not simply a means of finding personal fulfilment.
Authentic prayer is about wrestling with the hard realities of life and drawing on the grace of God to help find solutions when our own resources are exhausted. Someone has written, ‘There is in prayer an essential element of struggle, of radical questioning, of discontent, of striving. In prayer we seek to see more clearly, and such clarified vision must bring with it a dimension of pain and anguish’ (Fr Kenneth Leech).
Perhaps this is a time for all of us to begin to take prayer more seriously.
Thursday 2nd April
It’s wonderful how well the supermarkets are handling the current situation. After the weeks of panic buying and empty shelves, the situation seems to have calmed, and everything possible is being done to ensure that customers are kept safe and that adequate stocks are provided throughout the day. Pasta remains conspicuous by its absence, probably speaking less of stockpiling here than of the situation in Italy. It’s a powerful reminder that this is indeed a global crisis.
Some of my most worthwhile conversations are with checkout staff. They seem to be the ones who really know what’s going on, precisely because of the countless other snatched conversations they have during their shifts. They can give helpful information about levels of anxiety among the public and the kinds of things that are most on people’s minds. And they know that a friendly smile and a comment about the weather does a lot to reassure their customers.
To me it’s remarkable how many aspects of life are carrying on normally, and I’m full of admiration for those who are quietly undertaking essential tasks in order to keep our country running. Letters are still being delivered, rubbish is being collected, buses are running, repair and maintenance services are being maintained. In recent years I’ve become rather fed-up with the over-use of the wartime slogan ‘Keep calm and carry on’, but it’s impressive seeing so many people doing just that.
St Paul knew all about keeping calm and carrying on. Writing from prison he said: ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ [Philipp 4. 6-7]
Wednesday 1st April
One thing is now becoming very apparent, namely that when this present crisis is over many aspects of life will have radically changed. Some shops and businesses will have closed permanently; jobs will be scarce; our social habits and routines will have altered. People will give more thought to the food they eat, the holidays they choose, the way in which they spend their time and money. Perhaps they will think more deeply about the meaning of life and will want to explore questions of faith.
And the Church will have changed too. Old patterns of worship may no longer feel relevant. Congregations may be smaller. New ideas about ministry and mission will have emerged. Theologians will be kept busy reflecting on the Pandemic. What has it taught us about God and the nature of belief? How has it impacted on our faith and discipleship?
It will be important that we reflect about these big issues rather than pretending that nothing has happened and simply trying to get back to normal. We will be living in a different world.
On this day in 1872 a great thinker of the Church of England died. His name was F. D. Maurice and he was a man of compassion and generosity of spirit who cared deeply about social reform. He’s largely forgotten now, but he symbolises precisely the kind of enquiring mind and open faith that we will all need as we come to terms with this defining episode in our history. And he wrote these inspiring words, which point us forward to Easter: ‘The Light of the world is not put out. Now have death and the grave been converted into the great testimonies for life and immortality.’
Tuesday 31st March
John Donne was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and died on this day in 1631. He was a famous writer of poetry and prose as well as a powerful preacher. It was he who penned the line, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’.
One of the things that the spread of the coronavirus has highlighted is just how interconnected we all are. When the virus first surfaced in Wuhan it seemed like a problem for the Chinese alone. But it has spread so fast that over a quarter of the world’s population is now locked-down and fearful. And as supermarket shelves have emptied we have learned just how much we rely on other people and agencies to supply our most basic daily needs. We are not islands, standing alone. Each of us is ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’
But our interconnectedness is also our strength. In his broadcast on Sunday, the Prime Minister contradicted one of his distinguished predecessors by affirming his belief that ‘there really is such a thing as society’. People are doing their best to protect and care for one another. 750,000 people have volunteered to become NHS responders. Experts around the world have joined forces to fight the virus and produce a vaccine. Perhaps we will emerge from this crisis with a much sharper sense of our social and global responsibility.
And perhaps we will be less self-centred. Perhaps like Donne we will learn to be more engaged and empathetic: ‘Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Monday 30th March
The homeless are, of course, among the most vulnerable people in society, and they are particularly at risk from coronavirus. Many are already in poor health, their immune systems are weak, their nutrition is inadequate and they lack access to medical care. It’s a common misconception that the general public are at risk of infection from the homeless; in fact, the danger is the exact opposite. The homeless face a real threat from those around them and require particular support at the present time.
Last week the Government announced that it is urging local councils to provide emergency accommodation for those sleeping on our streets, and there has been a good response to its call here in Chichester. Stonepillow continues to provide an excellent framework of care, but there is always a need for care at the most basic street level. Small voluntary organisations still have a vital role to play.
Within our city we have a regular group of about 25 people who are fed each night by the Four Streets’ Project and receive hot daily meals (at present a cooked breakfast) through the work of Heart, the partnership of local churches, including our own. Both projects have wonderful teams of committed volunteers, and Four Streets’ makes good use of surplus food from Marks and Spencer and elsewhere.
It’s easy for us to forget about the homeless as we concentrate on our own needs and avoid the city centre. But they are still very much part of our community and they need our ongoing support.
Sunday 29th March
I was asked yesterday what it’s like not to have a congregation any more. My reply was that I’ve now got a virtual congregation and that I’ve become a virtual Rector! It’s true that I can no longer see you all in person, but I’m doing my best to stay in touch with you using all the technology I can muster (not much, it’s true – but some of you are doing wonderful work on my behalf!).
We are indeed fortunate that we now have so many ways of communicating with one another, and the Pandemic is encouraging us to be creative in the use of technology. I have no doubt that when it’s all over, many churches will have developed forms of online communication that would have otherwise remained untried, and that even dinosaurs like myself will have come round to the idea of regularly streaming live worship.
What we must never lose sight of is that Christianity is fundamentally a corporate faith and that we belong together as members of Christ’s body. This has nothing to do with personality type, and it’s perfectly possible to be highly introverted and still a committed follower of Christ! But it does mean that we support and affirm each other, not least in times of crisis, and that shared worship is at the heart of our life. I look forward to the day when we can return to church and break bread together once more in Christ’s name, and I urge you all to pray for each other during this time of physical isolation.
Saturday 28th March
Coronavirus is no respecter of persons. Prince Charles has now been joined by the Prime Minister and one or two of his top advisers among its latest casualties. We are told that they have a ‘mild’ form of the virus (no doubt a way of indicating that they’re unlikely to need hospital treatment) and are still able to work. We wish them well and hope that they make a swift recovery. The pressure under which they have been working over recent weeks must have been overwhelming.
In the Bible (2 Kings 5) we read of Naaman the Syrian. He was a man of power and influence – the commander of the king’s army – but he, too, was vulnerable. He contracted leprosy and his whole life changed. The prophet Elisha told him that if he washed seven times in the Jordan he would be healed. But he was too proud to do so. What sort of river was the Jordan? Just a pathetic dribble! He wasn’t going to humiliate himself paddling in its waters.
Pride can sometimes stand in the way of healing – especially for Alpha males like Boris and Naaman! We may be too proud to admit that we are ill, too proud to go to a doctor, too proud to accept the prescribed remedy, or too proud to rest and recuperate. And spiritually we must learn to overcome our pride and self-reliance in order to allow God to heal us by his grace. Naaman finally agreed to wash in the Jordan and his leprosy vanished. Let us humbly turn to God in this present time of need and pray for the renewal of our faith and courage.
Friday 27th March
Most of us probably take the NHS for granted. It’s always been there for us. It’s one of the institutions of which we in this country are rightly proud. Many of us work either work for it ourselves or have family members who do.
It’s hard to imagine Britain without the NHS. But it is, of course, a product of the social reforms that followed the War. It belongs to recent history. My parents were married a month before it came into being. My uncle qualified as a doctor ten years earlier. My grandfather practised as a dentist in Midhurst long before it had been thought of.
Last night people throughout the country, including the younger Royal Family, took part in the ‘Clap for Carers’ at 8pm. Here in the city centre the applause was audible, and people have told me how it moved them to tears. It was a simple but powerful way of showing our appreciation for those on whom we all depend when we are faced by illness or physical need, particularly our hospital staff, our GP’s and their teams, our community healthcare workers and all those who service the NHS and keep it functioning under pressure.
We are indebted to them all, and we take immense comfort from the fact that they are always there for us. Last night made plain that they are certainly not taken for granted and that we are thinking and praying for them during this time of crisis.
Thursday 26th March
I know two young women in their twenties who were both planning to get married in April. Their weddings were due to be held in secular venues and they had invested a huge amount of time and money getting everything arranged. Whenever I saw them I enjoyed hearing about their plans and sharing their excitement.
I haven’t seen either of them for the last fortnight, but I know how bitterly disappointed they’ll be that their weddings will have to be postponed. I can’t imagine where they’ll stand regarding insurance, but I know that it will be the shattering of their dreams, at least for the time being, that will upset them most. But I also know that they are level-headed and generous, and that they’ll be able to put their disappointment in perspective. What matters now is people’s health and safety. Everything else must pale into insignificance.
Perhaps some of you are dealing with the shattering of your dreams in the face of the Pandemic. Perhaps you were planning a big holiday or anniversary or family gathering this year. Diseases have many destructive effects on our lives. But they cannot destroy our faith. With the shield of faith, as St Paul reminds us, we are able to quench even ‘the arrows of the evil one’ (Eph 6. 16).
Wednesday 25th March
A month ago I went on a retreat. It wasn’t in a particularly remote location, but there was a sense of isolation and the leader encouraged us to put our phones aside for the entire five days and forget all about the wider world. No emails, no social contact – and no news!
How do you access the daily news? Do you wait for the arrival of a newspaper? Do you follow the news online? Do you listen to it on the radio or watch it on television? For most of us following the news is an important activity; for some it’s an obsession. At the present time the news is dramatic and fast-moving and it’s important that we keep in touch with what’s going on. But too much daily news creates anxiety, and there are times when we have to give ourselves permission to ignore it altogether.
Today we celebrate the best bit of news in history: the news that God was about to fulfil his promises by choosing Mary to become the mother of his Son. Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, and all the worrying news that currently fills the media should be placed within the context of Gabriel’s great announcement that the Messiah was to be born and that his kingdom would last forever. This is Good News – and we rejoice in it!
Mary was perplexed: ‘How can this be?’ But the angel reassured her: ‘Nothing will be impossible with God.’
Tuesday 24th March
Yesterday evening we took our two dogs for a walk up Halnaker Hill. There were – please note – almost no other people around, and it was an exceptionally beautiful evening. The sun was setting, the sky was clear, and the larks were singing despite the chilly air.
Hilaire Belloc, that passionate devotee of the Sussex landscape, is known to many for his poem Ha’nacker Mill. It has been much anthologised and is regarded as a lament for the passing of a way of rural life that was accelerated by the First World War. Here is its middle verse:
Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.
Like Belloc, we sometimes feel sadness and bewilderment at the pace of moral and social change. And we are disturbed when our own way of life is disrupted and jeopardised. Fiona and I returned from Halnaker last night to hear the Prime Minister outlining the threats to our present ‘fallen nation’. We must all heed his injunctions and pray that the Desolation that now threatens us will soon pass.
Monday 23rd March
First it was Bondi Beach, then Malibu, and now – West Wittering! Last night the decision was taken to close the beach at West Wittering in the wake of the many visitors who flocked there over the weekend to enjoy the sand, sea and sunshine. The owners have decided that, like some other attractive beaches around the world, it presents a health hazard simply by drawing too many people together in close proximity to one another.
It’s a responsible and commendable decision, but it will inevitably be met with dismay by the countless people who enjoy the beach each summer. I wonder when it was last closed indefinitely in this way? Probably in 1940, when invasion seemed imminent and most of our beaches were covered in barbed wire and declared off-limits. The enemy then was very obvious, lined up on the other side of the Channel. The enemy we now face is invisible and largely unknown – hence the unease that most of us are feeling.
1940 was also the year that the great William Temple became Archbishop. Temple gave regular wartime broadcasts and helped people to think about the nature of faith. He made it plain that in a time of crisis it is necessary to return to God, not so much saying ‘I believe in God’ but, rather, ‘I put my trust in God’.
Are we able to trust God? Might the present crisis deepen our faith?
Sunday 22nd March
It felt strange to be at home earlier this morning, especially without the customary Sunday sound of the Cathedral bells. But I appreciated being able to watch Justin Welby’s streamed service at 9am and drew a lot of strength from it. The beautiful chapel at Lambeth spoke of the continuity and endurance of our faith and was a reminder that we are members of the wider Anglican Communion, fighting this global crisis together.
In his sermon the Archbishop warned against becoming self-absorbed and preoccupied with our own needs and concerns. Rather than turning in ourselves at this time, it’s important that we look outwards to God and to one another, even if we must stand physically apart. And he quoted St Anselm, his distinguished predecessor at Canterbury, whose words are particularly appropriate to Mothering Sunday:
‘Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;
Through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.’
Don’t forget to place a lighted candle in your window this evening at 7pm, as a visible symbol of Jesus, the light of life and the source of our hope.
Saturday 21st March 2020
Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer, died on this day in 1556. The Prayer Book is often admired for the beauty of its language, but I think it has stood the test of time because it offers real insight into the human condition, not least our moral and physical frailty. I have never before had cause to use Cranmer’s Prayer ‘In the time of any common Plague or Sickness’, but the strength and directness of its language certainly makes it a powerful weapon in the present crisis. You will find it among the ‘Occasional Prayers’ in the BCP.
Cranmer was, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Reformation. Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby, will be leading the first national virtual Church of England service tomorrow morning, and I hope that many of you will share in it online, or listen to it on the radio. It will be broadcast on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship at 8.10 and all local radio stations at 8am, and will be available online at 9am. I wonder what Cranmer would have made of it all?
Friday 20th March 2020
The phrase ‘self-isolation’ has a slightly dramatic and fearful tone, and we are very aware that for many of you it has recently become a necessary course of action. We hope that you are not feeling too lonely; please don’t hesitate to contact us if there is any practical help you need.
But sometimes people self-isolate deliberately in order to find God. One such person was St Cuthbert, whom we remember today. Cuthbert lived in the 7th century, and towards the end of his life he withdrew entirely to the Inner Farne island off the Northumbrian coast. There he lived alone, with the seabirds and seals as his only companions, deepening his trust in God. It was a profound experience.
Cuthbert’s reputation for holiness spread far and wide. Eventually, long after his death, Durham Cathedral was built to mark his burial place. He reminds us that self-isolation can be a powerful means of spiritual growth. Remember the advice of the Desert Fathers: ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Thursday 19th March 2020
Dear Friends, I’m going to try and share a few thoughts with you daily until we are able to gather once again as a church. It’s so important that we still feel connected and that we are able to pray for each other and keep in touch. The church and parish office remain open and you are very welcome to contact me directly at any time.
Today the Church remembers Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, who is sometimes described as ‘Joseph the Worker’ – the patron saint of working people. This is a particularly worrying time for many working people, particularly those without salaries who live in rented accommodation. We pray that they may receive the practical help and advice that they need.
Joseph trusted God by marrying Mary, even though she was already pregnant. How willing are we to trust God and put aside our doubts and misgivings?