Bee blindness

I’ve been thinking for ages about writing some articles about ecology and Christianity. But I’ve been so worried that the material about ecology for Christians would seem superstitious to the ecologists, and the material about Christianity for ecologists would seem heretical to the Christians, that I haven’t dared publish any of it. But all I really want to do is get people thinking, so on the basis that the most thought-provoking sermon is the awful, erroneous sermon, here is one about bees and Jesus. Follow the links for more information or source material.

Jesus, carpenter turned edgy stand-up comedian, told a silly story about a man with a plank in his eye, who patronisingly offered to take the speck of sawdust out of his colleague’s eye, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything because he had a fucking great plank in his eye. (Luke 6.41-2)

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year, ever since I read Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale in hospital, where as well as being cured of my physical ills I was enjoying an intense digital detox as my phone was broken and there was no WiFi. But what does Goulson’s tale of bumblebee adventures have to do with Jesus’s plank-man?

I’d always thought the pollinator crisis was about honeybee decline.

I didn’t know, in hospital, that a few weeks later I would begin working for Buglife, where my adventures with bumblebees would redouble. Not professionally, you understand: I’m only qualified to shuffle information and talk to people. But as soon as spring arrived, we would go out at lunchtime and start identifying things; and one of the easiest things to identify was bumblebees.

There are only six common sorts, and they wear distinctive strips like rugby players.

Red tailed bumblebees (all black with a red tail) and Common carder bees (brown or gingery) are easy. Buff tailed, White tailed and Garden look more similar and I never reliably distinguished them with their yellow-and-black stripes and a whitish tail. It took me a while to spot an Early bumblebee, black-and-yellow but with a gingery tail, and it felt like completing a collection when I did. And all before Pokemon Go even arrived.

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Common carder bee on scabious, in the wildflower garden of Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh

There’s actually a seventh common sort now, the Tree bumblebee, with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, which has moved in rapidly from Europe. Whereas most bumblebees nest in burrows under grassy tussocks, like rabbits, Tree bumblebees nest high up, like Blue tits – in fact they often take over their nest boxes.

Plank-man wasn’t the only story Jesus told about not being able to see. You know the phrase, “the blind leading the blind”? That’s one of his. The context was his friends warning him that he was starting to annoy influential people, to which he replied, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15.14)

I never said Jesus’ sense of humour was tasteful.

Bees have different roles within the colony, and I also learned a bit about distinguishing queens, workers and males. I knew before that queens are the huge ones, but I didn’t know workers could be tiny, tinier than you could imagine a bumblebee to be, little fluff-balls. Nor did I know that males generally have yellow faces, and never sting, although unlike my colleague Scott I haven’t yet been quite brave enough to test this by holding a yellow-faced bee for its portrait.

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But these seven bumblebees are just the start. There are 24 UK species of bumblebee, and once you know the common ones you can tell when you’ve seen something more interesting. I spent a long time watching this Field cuckoo bumblebee and wondering what it was before another colleague Suzie enlightened me. Cuckoo bumblebees sneak into bumblebee nests, kill the queen, and let the workers raise their young.

Field cuckoo bumblebee
Field cuckoo bumblebee

Jesus was actually quite obsessed with blindness, so it’s not surprising there are so many stories of him healing physically blind people. Blindness is his central accusation against the religious teachers of the day, as in this extract from a tremendous rant:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, if anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. You fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Woe to you, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin – but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23.16-24)

I never said Jesus was restrained.

But these 24 bumblebees are still just the start. Pollinating insects include over 200 species of solitary bees, over 250 species of wasp, as well as flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles. There are reckoned to be 1500 species of wild pollinator in the UK.

And yet, how many times when we are talking or thinking about “pollinators” do we say, or mean, “honeybees”? British honeybees are not 1,500 species, they are one species, Apis mellifera.

It was domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, and is not a natural part of our ecosystem, any more than an Aberdeen terrier, Herdwick sheep or Orpington chicken. Equating honeybees with pollinators is as if you were trying to tell someone about the diversity of UK mammals: Wildcat, Red squirrel, Badger, Otter, Harvest-mouse, Pine marten, Water vole, Weasel, Dormouse — but they insist on referring to them all as “sheep”. Except it’s 15 times worse because there are only 101 species of mammal in the UK, not 1,500.

Jesus didn’t make up this stuff about blindness. He got it from reading the prophets, like Isaiah, raging about the lazy, corrupt religious teachers of his day:

Israel’s watchmen are blind,
they all lack knowledge;
They are dogs with mighty appetites;
they never have enough.
They are shepherds who lack understanding;
they seek their own gain. (Isaiah 56.9-11)

I never said Jesus was original.

But why does this matter? It’s very interesting, of course, to know about Common carder bees and how to distinguish groups of hoverflies by the loops on their wings, but is this not somewhat arcane knowledge, like my arcane ability to recite that passage from Isaiah about human and environmental restoration:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35.5-7)

eristalis
Eristalis hoverflies mimic bumblebees, and are distinguished by the prominent loop in the central vein near the tip of their wings.

It matters because we rely on pollinators to produce chocolate, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cotton, peanuts, and much more: one in three mouthfuls of food, in fact.

And pollinators are under threat, from climate change, development (building houses and road etc), but most of all from intensive farming practices.

And when nature is under threat, its best defence is found in diversity. One pollinator which nests in sandy banks might go extinct, but one which nests in grass might survive. One whose grubs feed on thyme might go extinct, but one which feeds on dead-nettles might survive. A disease might wipe out one species, while another might be resistant. Nature is so complex, so full of factors we barely understand, that to rely on one species, honeybees, which did not even evolve to live here, is wilfully to blind ourselves to our own ignorance of what it is we are relying on.

We think we can march in and fix nature: “bees are declining! Start beekeeping! Hey we could be like Christian monks in the olden days!” when really we should be stepping back to let nature recover in its diversity. Over one summer, a 40-hive apiary will take enough pollen to feed four million wild bees; or in other words, four million wild bees, in all their resilient diversity, will starve: and if a disease were to come along that wiped out the honeybees, so will we.

The best blindness story about Jesus is the one where he heals a blind man, then the sceptical religious teachers come and investigate the healing. The blind man persists in calling a spade a spade, and the teachers insist he must be mistaken. It’s worth reading the whole story, (John 9) but it ends up with the teachers saying to Jesus, “What? Are we blind too?”, and Jesus saying, being blind does not make you culpable; but claiming you can see when you can’t makes you guilty.

Being a Christian does not mean being like Christian monks in the olden days: it means imitating Jesus.

The first step to imitating Jesus — along with forgetting about being tasteful, restrained, or original, and keeping your sense of humour — is taking the plank out of your eye: the plank of introverted obsession with human-made objects and human-made concerns and conventions, with which we have blocked out all knowledge of the rest of life.

The second step to imitating Jesus is to be a healer. I set up the Wild Reekie group to ‘discover and restore nature in Edinburgh’, which with the help of a little social media magic has resulted in over 150 people, mostly less knowledgeable about ecology than me (which isn’t saying much) coming to events to learn about it. We had lots of events over the summer looking at pollinators, and I had lots of fun passing on my newfound knowledge of the seven common bumblebees. But my favourite conversation was with the lady who wasn’t sure whether what she was looking at was a bee or a wasp.

“That one’s a hoverfly”, I said.
“Oh, so not very interesting,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said, “There are hundreds of species of hoverfly, they’re really interesting and very beautiful.”
“Oh — so they are interesting then!”

I don’t think she’ll ever see a hoverfly — or fail to see one — the same way again.

I didn’t even know how many species of hoverfly there are (283, according to the very good field guide); and my knowledge of why they’re interesting extends to a vague knowledge of a life cycle that begins with leathery things in muddy ponds.

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An Early bumblebee posing for Wild Reekie at Lochend Park in Edinburgh

But all it had taken to discover that they’re very beautiful — meaningful — important — in Christian terminology, sacred — was looking at them: something I never really did before I was cured of blindness, and took out the plank, that week in hospital.

 

Follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris.

Holy Trinity’s Hogmanay

The Choir of Holy Trinity form the setting for my novel, Ursula, but they don’t get much chance for action themselves, so I thought I would give them a short story of their own.

 

It had all been fine until the bells. It always goes wrong at the bells.

The Choir of Holy Trinity, or at any rate a quorum of six who deemed themselves the essence of that community, finding themselves still in Edinburgh at Hogmanay, and flat and weary after the excitements of Christmas singing, arranged to go into town in search of atmosphere. They all rocked up at their usual drinking den, The Half Mast, at about nine o’clock in expectation of being cheered.

‘Sophie!’ cried Penelope and Portia merrily. ‘Feels like it’s been ages!’ added Portia, whose drink was long and luminous red.

‘Longest week of the year,’ agreed Sophie. ‘What you guys been up to? No, hold that thought: I need a pint.’ She headed for the bar.

‘Hi,’ said her flatmate Dave, who had come in after Sophie like a shadow, and whose glasses had steamed up.

‘Where’s Tom?’ Penelope asked, when they came back with pints.

‘Gone off to spend quality time with his godmother,’ said Sophie. ‘Staying with Ursula’s cousin or something in Stonehaven. God, I need this!’ She sourced a beer mat with the hand not employed in tipping beer into her mouth, before putting the considerably-depleted pint down on it.

‘Oh here’s Matt,’ cried Portia. ‘Matt!’ She leaped up and gave him an embrace of greeting. ‘Merry Christmas! Muah!’

‘How come I never get that?’ said Richard to Penelope.

‘What, from me or from her?’ said Penelope.

‘Either!’

‘Well, from her, because I’d thump her.’

This reply pleased Richard sufficiently that he forgot to ask his girlfriend why he wasn’t ‘muah-ed’ by her, so he just gave her a squeeze and said across her, ‘Cheer up Soph, you’ve got that face on.’

‘She’s grumpy ’cause she won’t get a snog from Tom at the bells,’ said Dave. ‘She’s a godmother widow.’

‘No!’ Sophie disclaimed (probably disingenuously). ‘I’m just worried about this thing tomorrow.’

You’re worried?’ said Portia, sitting back down. ‘I have to play the organ on the radio — you’re only reading your thing — I assume you’ve written it?’

‘Yeah — they won’t know who you are though, and you’re just playing carols everyone likes. They’ll all be listening to me and saying “Who the fuck’s this plonker?”‘

‘I meant to do some practice this week but everyone else at work buggered off so I’ve been chained to the desk,’ said Portia. ‘Och well, as you say, they won’t know who I am. Drink, Pen, Richie?’ She bounded off to the bar.

‘I have a bad feeling about tomorrow,’ said Sophie. ‘How many of those awful red things has she had?’

‘That was only the first,’ said Richard.

‘But we have all been drinking wine and eating pizza since half past five,’ pointed out Penelope.

‘So is this New Year’s Day radio service all your fault?’ said Richard.

‘Kind of. Some BBC person rang up Peter on — whatever day it was that email came out — the day after Boxing Day — I’ve lost track.’

‘That was Monday’, said her flatmate Dave precisely. ‘I know because I went back to work on Wednesday, because we’d had Monday and Tuesday off as Bank Holiday, because of Christmas being on a Saturday.’

‘Useful to know,’ said Sophie sarcastically. ‘Anyway, Rev Pete rang up me, and said they wanted to do a morning service about hope for the planet for the New Year, and could we provide a choir and an environmentalist.’

‘Gift-wrapped,’ suggested Matt.

‘But then it turned out they were also supplying their own environmentalist who’s this guy called Roddy who’s head of Nature Scotland, so I’ve spent the whole week madly emailing him and Peter to agree what we’re all going to say.’

‘So what’s he like, this Roddy guy?’ asked Richard.

‘Ha!’ said Dave, with the knowing glee of one who’s heard the story.

‘Well,’ said Sophie. ‘I met him once at some environmental networking thing, and he said hello, how’d’you do, where are you from what d’you do, you know; and I said, I’m from the church, I run environmental initiatives with Holy Trinity Calton Hill, and he said, ah, the church: you’re that lot who think the floods in Somerset were caused by gay marriage.’

Everyone laughed. ‘He can’t have really thought that?’ said Penelope.

‘I dunno, I couldn’t tell,’ said Sophie. ‘He sounded serious.’

‘I bet he does,’ said Dave. ‘It’s what people think we think.’

‘So how did he get persuaded to do this gig?’ said Penelope.

Sophie shrugged. ‘Chance to get Nature Scotland on the radio. He’s not going to turn it down. He probably only got asked because the heads of Scottish Wildlife Trust, WWF and the RSPB are all getting drunk together in some castle in the Highlands.’

‘Are they?’ said Portia, wide eyed at the image.

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Sophie. ‘But that’s what all sensible people are doing, not scrambling around in Edinburgh with the great unwashed.’

‘Admit it, you’d be delighted to be in Edinburgh for Hogmanay if Tom was here,’ said Penelope.

Sophie scowled over the rim of her pint glass, not at the tease, but at the glance of promise which Penelope gave Richard as she finished the sentence.

Conversation moved on to gossiping about other members of the choir, and thence quickly, lubricated by another round of drinks, to singing Christmas carols. It is true that Matt sang the first phrase of Three Kings from Persian Lands afar only because it seemed the best response to the remark that Edith, George and Quentin had booked a holiday in January to Turkey, but when everyone else began singing the chorale underneath, it seemed a shame to stop, and they warmed to the performance. He grew quite operatic in verse two, and after he floated the final phrase, ‘offer thy heart,’ with the smallest of controlled vibrato into the air of the noisy pub, there was a little smattering of applause from the largely unseen people at tables around their alcove. They all burst into laughter. Richard cut into it by singing, ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out?’ in a tone of question, answered by a rousing, ‘On the feast of Stephen!’ and they sang the whole carol in rollicking pub style, stamping their feet and thumping the table. ‘Ding dong merrily’ followed in the same style.

‘Sing Twelve Days of Christmas? shouted a voice from the pub, so they all launched into that, Penelope and Sophie improvising descants, and laughing at Portia who was still forgetting all the words after ‘seven swans a swimming’ even three verses later. Then they sang the Scottish dance-carol, Ecce Novum Gaudium, and then Past Three O’Clock, although that fell apart quickly when no-one could remember the words to the verses.

‘There’s that one about the hinds’, said Matt doubtfully.

‘Cheese from the dairy, bring they a fairy,’ suggested Penelope.

‘And not for butter, money and Rutter,’ said Dave. ‘No, that can’t be right …’

‘It’s half eleven!’ said Matt suddenly.

‘Oh, come on, bells! Bells!’ cried Portia, leaping up and scrabbling for her coat.

‘Calm yourself, woman,’ said Richard.

‘It’s going to be freezing out there,’ said Sophie.

‘Oh for God’s sake, cheer up,’ said Dave. ‘You should have had more to drink.’

‘I’m in one of those moods where however much I drink, I don’t get drunk,’ said Sophie crossly.

‘Oh dear,’ said Dave.

They followed Portia and Penelope, jostling and giggling their way out of the door, into the sudden comparative silence of the traffic-less street.

Portia gasped. ‘Oh, it’s snowing!

‘Oh fuck it,’ said Penelope, who resented Nature its inconveniences. Sophie, in contrast, felt immediately calmed and cheered by this intervention of circumstances beyond her or any human control, as if an act of God.

They skipped and shuffled up the hill through the already-trampled two inches of snow. Portia grabbed Penelope’s gloved hand on one side, and Matt’s, which happened to be nearest, on the other, and led them threading through the crowds towards Princes Street, Richard, Dave and Sophie following in their wake. They found a spot with a view of the castle and a female DJ with the weariness of one who has been flannelling since 9pm broadcasting over a loudspeaker. She audibly cheered up as she realised she only had a minute to go, and a ripple went round the crowd.

‘Here we go!’ said the DJ. ‘Ten!’

The whole crowd, from one end of the city to the other, joined in. ‘Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!’

Sophie suddenly thrilled to the moment. A new year, all fresh and innocent out of the box. Maybe it will be all right after all.

‘Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!’

Edinburgh Castle went white as it stretched its first burst of fireworks like dragons’ wings. Sophie was captivated. The swirling snow filling the air was lit by red and blue spheres. Huge white explosions illuminated the great black rock of the Castle, picked out in snow like an old engraving: a sublime, unreal representation of volcano and blizzard. Snow was getting in her eyes.

‘Bugger me, look at that,’ said Dave between explosions, tugging her sleeve. Sophie startled and looked down, reluctant to tear her eyes away from the fireworks. It took her a while to recognise Portia and Matt, their faces hidden in each others’.

‘Oh,’ said Sophie. She felt sorry for Dave, whom she knew was partial to Portia. She felt even sorrier for herself, missing Tom their first New Year together.

‘Didn’t see that coming,’ said Dave.

No, me neither,’ said Sophie. ‘Well, not before tonight. Portia suddenly seemed to be on a mission.’

‘Oh well — why not bless ’em,’ said Dave. ‘Happy New Year, Soph.’ They embraced, and kissed, as you do at New Year, but forgot to stop. Dave’s mouth was warm, and opened, and Dave’s tongue was alive, and intimate, the only living, intimate, warm thing in that cold, old, unreal engraving of a historic city.

They jumped apart and Sophie looked around. Portia and Matt were still entwined, like amorous slugs. Penelope and Richard had vanished. No-one had seen.

‘Sorry,’ said Dave.

‘No, my fault,’ said Sophie, like polite strangers who had jostled in a library cafe.

‘Time to head?’ said Dave.

‘Yeah,’ said Sophie. ‘Early start.’

Everyone was freezing, and Princes Street was emptying fast. The snow fell.

* * *

‘I set off at six,’ George was saying.

‘Have you walked all the way from Colinton?’ asked Edith. George signified assent with a slight, triumphant smile. ‘Puts us to shame, doesn’t it?’ Edith said to Violet. ‘That must be, what, four miles at least?’

‘Oh more than that — five or six,’ said Quentin.

‘I confess walking from Bruntsfield was quite epic enough for me these days,’ said Violet, who, however, was dressed like an advertisement for ‘countrywear’ and whose walk across town through a foot of snow had left her looking glowing and energised.

‘It’s strange how quiet the city goes, isn’t it?’ said Ben. ‘I came over Arthur’s seat and a great golden dawn was breaking all over East Lothian. It was spectacular. You must have seen it?’ he added to George.

‘Yes, just as I came down the Mound,’ said George. ‘Crackin’, wasn’t it?’

‘Like an egg! You must have set off in pitch darkness,’ said Ben.

‘Well, except that the snow was reflecting the street lights so the whole place was bright,’ said George. ‘It was as quiet as quiet, though. I didn’t see a soul all the way here, actually.’

‘No, nor did I,’ said Edith.

‘I saw one person walking their dog on the Meadows,’ said Violet.

Sophie had stumbled in during this conversation, having discovered her wellies had sprung a leak and, having lost her good hat, wearing an absurd bobble hat with her faded mountaineering coat. Under the absurd hat she had an absurd hangover. The shame of the horrible orange bobble stood proxy for the shame of the knowledge of having kissed Dave, which she could hardly believe was less glaringly evident, although of course nobody knew about it. Dave was taking off his coat and chatting to Quentin with what seemed to Sophie to be unseemly nonchalance. She hated them all, with their smug wax jackets and experiences of sunrises and clear heads and consciences.

‘Ah, Sophie,’ said Peter, dog-collared and official-looking. ‘I’m glad you’re here. Have you met Roddy?’ He presented a tall, thin man with spectacles and a little beard, and a woolly brown jumper with a zip at the collar. Sophie remembered he looked like a meerkat.

‘Oh yes, we’ve met,’ said Sophie superciliously. ‘At the Scottish Green Cities Forum?’

‘Oh — yes,’ said the meerkat, who evidently forgotten it. ‘I think we’ve put a good script together.’

‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it,’ said Sophie, wishing she were still in bed.

‘Where is everybody?’ said Matteo the choirmaster was saying crossly. ‘It’s quarter past eight.’

‘Here’s Penelope and Richard,’ said Dave.

‘So sorry!’ panted Penelope. ‘We’ve just been haring it up Leith Walk. Gosh that snow’s deep.’

‘I don’t suppose you know what’s happened to Portia?’ Matteo asked her.

‘No — what’s happened to Portia?’

‘I don’t know! I was hoping you would. I just work here, nobody tells me anything.’

‘She was out with us last night. Give her a ring.

‘I’ve tried. Her phone’s off.’

‘She’ll be struggling through the snow. I’m sure she’ll turn up. What time are we on? Nine?

‘Yes. And Matt’s not here either. Sorry, Ben.’ Ben was the only other tenor, and not a confident singer.

‘I’m sure they’ll appear,’ said Dave, giving a conspiratorial glance at Sophie. Sophie didn’t want to be involved in any conspiracies with Dave, even ones that only involved third parties’ kisses.

‘Right we may as well have a run-through,’ said Matteo, beginning to dole out little stapled sheaves of photocopies. ‘Everything you need is in this.’

Oh Holy Night?’ said Penelope with incredulous scorn, opening the bundle at random.

‘You’re here to sing it, not to comment on it,’ said Matteo impatiently. ‘Here, have one too — feel free to join in the carols.’ He gave a sheaf to Roddy.

‘Oh — thank you — I don’t know much about –‘ stuttered Roddy inarticulately — as if he had been asked to participate in a Satanic ritual, thought Sophie.

‘This is Roddy, our environmentalist,’ said Matteo, gesturing in a welcoming manner. The meerkat nodded nervously.

‘Hi Roddy,’ said Penelope across the choir, in an awkward one-woman attempt at a chorus of welcome. Everyone else just stared at him.

‘How’d’you do, I’m Ben,’ said Ben, who happened to be standing next to him, and put out his hand to shake.

‘How’d’you do,’ said Roddy, looking tense.

‘And this is Kylie, our Producer,’ said Matteo, gesturing further away to a smiley lady ensconced like a queen wasp amongst the nest of coloured cables and button-spangled steel boxes which had encrusted the area around the pulpit.

‘Hello, everyone,’ called Kylie, who shared with Matteo the task of making this reluctant, hungover, sleepy rabble a conduit of festive cheer to the Nation at 9am on New Year’s Day.

‘Hello Kylie!’ responded a far more respectable chorus of choristers smiling back at her.

Sophie thought, now the meerkat thinks we are rude and posh as well as religious weirdos. She hated him for the prejudices she had projected on to him.

‘Do you want to run through what’s going to happen?’ Matteo asked Kylie.

‘Yes,’ said the queen wasp, deftly stepping forward out of her nest of wires while consulting her own, much thicker, sheaf of pages. She explained to the choir how the service would work, how Peter would begin it from outside, and how Roddy and Sophie would come forward to the microphone to read their spoken sections. ‘Now — do you want to have a sing through some things?’ she asked, batting their shared authority back to Matteo. The choir looked back at him like spectators at a tennis match.

‘Yes, we better had. Where the hell is Portia? I’ll have to play. We’ll start with the first one, Hark the Herald.’ The last sentence was spoken while hurrying towards the organ-loft door, and full-stopped with a bang.

‘Oh God, not Hark the Herald,’ said Quentin, voicing the thoughts of a choir who had sung it at least six times in the past month, and believed they had seen the last of it on Christmas morning.

There was a moment of tense silence, broken by the sound of Matteo’s feet hurrying up the wooden organ-loft staircase. He reappeared in sight, facing away from them, his curly hair flying about as he added a few extra loud stops to the piston setting. ‘My descant, not Willcocks’, he called, and started to play. The choir sang. ‘Skip to verse three!’ he shouted at the end of verse one, and Sophie and Penelope gave each other a slight cross-eyed glance of resignation. A descant with a hangover without having had time to warm up.

‘We sound awful,’ said Richard unconstructively at the end.

‘Dave, you’d better sing tenor with Ben,’ called Matteo.

‘Oh what?‘ said Dave, running his hands through his hair.

Sophie remembered the warmth of his tongue, and thought of Tom, and hated herself.

‘Matt’ll turn up,’ said Richard, confidently.

‘Sorry I’m so useless,’ said Ben.

‘Right, next one, O Holy Night‘, called Matteo. ‘Damn it, Matt was supposed to be singing the first verse of this as well. OK, we’ll have full men, please, unless he arrives.’

He started to play. The men, who had previously only sung the harmony part in verse two, hesitantly sang in dubious unison.

Matteo stopped before verse two.

‘It’s not the most obvious tune, is it?’ said George.

‘How long have we got?’ Matteo called to Kylie.

‘Oh, you can have five minutes yet,’ called the ever-cheerful queen of the wires.

‘Just do that again’, said Matteo, trying to sound as if everything was under control. The men read the tune again, eliminating eighty percent of the mistakes they made first time round, and they made it to the end.

‘Right, quickly, While Shepherds Watched, just the first and last verse,’ called Matteo. Everyone’s voices had warmed up a bit by now, and, with the hungover Dave adding some audible tenor, it didn’t sound too bad. The expression of strangled agony on his face wouldn’t be visible on the radio.

‘You sound great, guys,’ said smiley Kylie, coming forward again as they finished, clutching her photocopies and a pen.

‘We’re singing all the verses in the service, right?’ interrupted George.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Matteo, in the tone of one answering a stupid question.

Kylie, who had stopped with pen poised and smile fixed on her face, unfroze and continued talking. An engineer emerged, troll-like, from the shadows and moved microphones around slightly. Nobody introduced him, but Kylie said, ‘Thanks Jim.’

Kylie gave a few more instructions and Roddy and Sophie read parts of their script so Jim could check the balance. In the organ loft, Matteo was still trying to phone Portia. At three minutes to nine they still hadn’t appeared. ‘Looks like we’re not going to have a conductor. You’ll have to watch my head,’ said Matteo irritably. ‘Just do try remember diction is especially important on the radio. And do try to get the consonants together at ends of lines. I won’t be able to indicate anything, just put them where they’re supposed to be. And please turn the pages quietly.’

Dave clownishly flapped his photocopies noisily. Penelope tittered.

‘OK guys,’ called Kylie, wearing headphones. Everyone snapped into order. ‘Peter, can you hear me?’ She listened, head cocked, for the response from Peter outside, heard only through her headphones. ‘Good — ready? … Right, any minute now … OK — off you go.’

There was tense silence in the church: no-one was sure whether they were on-air or not. They stood poised, clutching Hark the Herald.

‘Jim, can we feed Peter through to here so we can hear him?’ said Kylie. Peter’s disembodied voice suddenly filled the church, mid-sentence, full of good cheer.

‘… Year to you all!’

‘Thanks,’ said Kylie to the invisible Jim.

‘I’m standing on Calton Hill, overlooking the centre of Edinburgh’, went on Peter. ‘After last night’s heavy snow, the city is white and beautiful …’ Kylie pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows in approval: Peter had re-written his introduction to take account of the snow. Sophie, who had a full script, showed it to Penelope next to her. He was supposed to be talking about the busy city waking up, with the sound of buses and traffic in the background, but, because of the snow, there was no sound of traffic. ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ said Peter, getting himself back on-script. Suddenly there was the sound of feet running through snow and loud panting. ‘… on our place in the world, in the order of nature, at time of dire danger and grave responsibility…’ Peter’s voice inappropriately brightened up as he began to speak of the environmental crisis and the recent climate summit in Lima, and the explanation came a moment later as the church door gave a double creak-clunk, once from the outside over the loudspeakers and once in reality on the inside, and Portia and Matt, red-faced and dripping with perspiration, ran into the church. Matteo said not a word, but slipped out of the organ loft as Portia burst in. Matt tried to control his breathing as he looked through the photocopied sheet Ben handed him with a scowl. Everyone glared at the delinquents, except Dave, who looked gratefully relieved at being able to sing bass again.

Jim silenced the end of Peter’s broadcast so as not to interfere with the beginning of the carol in the church, and Matteo glued his eyes to Kylie, who had her head and pen cocked beneath her headphones. She indicated with her pen and eyebrows. Matteo pointed at Portia. Portia began the introduction to Hark the Herald, and they were off.

* * *

‘That was great guys,’ said Kylie, taking off her headphones and stepping out of her wires. ‘I’ll just go and rescue Reverend Peter, he’s been banished to the hall.’ She headed off.

‘Well, that could have been worse,’ said Richard philosophically.

Much worse,’ said Matteo. ‘Thanks guys.’

‘You looked very funny doing your O Holy Night thing,’ said Penelope to him, imitating the way Matteo had conveyed in pantomime that Matt was to sing the first verse solo after all.

‘I was so relieved we didn’t have to sing that,’ said Quentin. ‘What a peculiar tune.’

‘I’m amazed you didn’t know it,’ put in Roddy the environmentalist. ‘It’s the only one I did know.

‘Our confidence is all a front,’ said Richard. ‘We’re actually pretty ignorant.’

‘Once we were singing carols in the Balmoral and a child requested Rudolph the red-nose reindeer‘ said Penelope. ‘We made such a hash of it. We could never decide whether the tune went up or down, and no-one except Dave could remember the words.’

‘Because I’m a legend,’ said Dave ironically, in a hollow Marvin voice. His hangover had kicked in properly and his head hurt.

Kylie came back followed by Peter the vicar, and Ben’s boyfriend Frank.

‘Frank!’ cried Penelope.

‘Happy New Year everyone,’ said Frank. ‘I heard you on the radio in the hall — you sounded fab!’

‘Well, we got through it anyway,’ said Richard, voicing the feeling of the choir.

‘It’s nice and warm in there — and Peter’s got the kettle on,’ said Kylie, as they Happy-New-Yeared Frank.

‘Tea anyone?’ affirmed Peter.

‘Oh I could kill for a cup of tea,’ said Ben. ‘Come on Rod.’

‘I could kill for a bacon roll,’ said Dave.

‘You know what I could kill for,’ said Matteo. ‘An Aberdeen buttery roll.’

‘Oooooh, a buttery!’ said Sophie. ‘I wish you hadn’t made me think of that.’

‘I don’t know what one of those is,’ said Portia.

‘Amazing things you only get in Aberdeen,’ said Sophie.

‘I know where you can get them,’ said Roddy unexpectedly. ‘There’s a wee bakery at the top of Leith Walk.

‘No — is there?’ said Matteo, his eyes widening. ‘How did I never know about this?’

‘Let’s go and get some,’ said Ben putting his coat on. ‘Come on Frank. Where is it?’

Armed with the meerkat’s instructions, Frank and Ben headed out into the snow on a breakfast raid. By the time they returned, the second pot of tea was being brewed.

Ben proffered the bag of butteries to Roddy, saying, ‘You first — that was a good tip!’

‘Thanks,’ said Roddy, adding to Portia, ‘Try one.’

Portia gingerly took out one of the contents of the greasy-looking bag. ‘It looks like a squashed croissant,’ she said. Then, with her mouth full, ‘Oh, wow!’

‘I’d just like to remind everyone this was my idea,’ said Matteo, diving in to the bag.

‘You didn’t know where to get them though,’ said Sophie, following suit and looking with gratitude at Roddy, who had suddenly developed hero status.

‘It’s like … the best hangover cure ever,’ said Portia. ‘It’s so … buttery.‘ everyone laughed at her ineloquence.

‘And salty,’ added Sophie, taking a more scientific approach to its therapeutic properties.

‘I’ve got bacon rolls, too,’ said Frank, holding up a much bigger bag.

‘Oh, good man,’ said Dave, hastening thither.

‘Here, Roddy, have a cup of tea,’ said Peter, handing one into his free hand handle-first. ‘Well done in the service.’

‘Well done all three of you,’ said George, looking at Sophie, Peter and Roddy. ‘It was very well put-together. I wish I’d come to your Light for Lima vigil now.’

‘Ah!’ said Sophie significantly, meaning, ‘let that be a lesson to you’. ‘Still, there’s still time to fast for the climate. Peter’s doing it.’

‘Hang on, didn’t you say you were supposed to fast on the first day of the month?’ said Richard, looking at the second half-eaten buttery Sophie was holding. The guilt of the hypocritical environmentalist washed over Sophie.

‘We’re launching it at Holy Trinity next month,’ said Peter, coming to her rescue. ‘Sophie’s just said so on the radio.’

‘I’m not sure about it,’ said Dave. ‘It looks a bit — like you think you’re going to solve climate change by praying rather than actually by doing stuff.’

‘If you’d listened to what I was saying in the service,’ said Sophie, ‘you’d know it was about solidarity. And it’s being done all round the world by people of all faiths and none.’

‘Hm,’ said Dave, his mouth full of bacon roll. ‘My main concern in the service was staying upright.’

‘What was everyone doing last night?’ said Matteo. ‘You all look like death warmed up.’

The reprobates exchanged guilty glances, except Penelope who said, ‘We all went out for the bells. It was great — bloody freezing though.’

‘Typical Pen,’ said Sophie. ‘You lead everyone astray by trying to get them to keep pace with you, then turn up on time and looking absolutely fine. I don’t know how you do it.’

‘I was steaming,’ admitted Dave. Sophie began to wonder whether he actually remembered the disaster. She hoped not.

‘Very unprofessional. And why were you so late?’ said Matteo to Portia. ‘And you,’ he added to Matt.

‘My alarm didn’t go off,’ said Portia, trying to look brazen like Penelope, and only half-succeeding.

‘No, nor did mine,’ said Matt, looking thoroughly sheepish.

Violet, Edith and George came over, saving them from further interrogation.

‘Well, that’s the year launched,’ said Violet.

‘Shame we didn’t get any decent music to sing,’ said Penelope.

‘You can choose it next time,’ said Matteo crossly. ‘And get more than eleven singers to turn up, on time.’

‘Never mind. Only a week till Epiphany carols,’ said Violet. ‘What are we singing, Maestro?’

‘Er, Bethlehem Down …’ began Matteo.

‘Oh, lovely, my favourite!’ said Edith.

‘And the Leighton. You’re doing the solo by the way,’ Matteo said to Sophie.

‘Lully, lulla!’ croaked Sophie, more witchily than seraphically.

‘Not a drop of alcohol before then,’ said Marcus.

‘What else?’ said Penelope eagerly.

‘Oh — Good King WenceslasThree Wee KingsI Saw Three Ships — anything with the word Kings or the number three you know.’

Roddy laughed. ‘Three Wee Kings?’

‘We three,’ elucidated Ben. ‘Tedious old choir joke.’

‘Then what’s the next excitement after Epiphany?’ pressed Penelope. ‘We need things to look forward to at this time of year.’

‘Well, there’s the wedding of the century,’ said Ben.

‘Oh, who’s getting married?’ asked Roddy politely.

‘Me and Ben,’ said Frank. Sophie almost laughed out loud at the look of shock on Roddy’s face.

‘Instead of bridesmaids we’ll have all the clergy of the diocese in procession pink fluffy stoles,’ said Frank, ‘Coing all along Princes Street and up Calton Hill. It’ll be like that painting of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, only with more people.’

‘I think you’ll find it’s against canon law to wear fluffy pink stoles in procession,’ said Peter doubtfully.

‘Isn’t it against canon law to marry us at all?’ said Ben.

‘I’m working on it,’ said Peter, slightly grimly. ‘The institutions of our esteemed religion are not always quite up to speed with the rest of society,’ he explained to Roddy. ‘But,’ he added to Frank, ‘when I officiate at your wedding, I shall wear a pink fluffy stole.’

Everyone laughed at the unlikely vision.

‘Right,’ said George, ‘Fortified by my bacon roll I think it’s time to begin the long march back to Colinton. I may be some time.’

‘Farewell Captain Oates,’ said Richard.

‘See you at Epiphany Carols, I hope,’ said Matteo.

‘You have more carols?’ said Roddy.

‘Epiphany’s the last, thank God,’ said Penelope. ‘And not for a week.’

Hobbit‘s on telly at eleven,’ said Dave, who was consulting his phone.

‘Rest of the day: sorted,’ said Peter.

* * *

It was dark already by the time Sophie and Dave listened to the broadcast on iPlayer. They’d both fallen asleep near the end of the Hobbit, then Tom had phoned. He said he and Ursula had been listening and it had sounded great.

‘You should have seen what it was like in real life,’ said Sophie. ‘Remember that farce about the theatre, Noises Off? It was like that.’

‘Did everyone get stuck in the snow?’

‘Oh, everyone: we all had to walk.’

‘Really? Wow. What, Violet and everyone?’

‘George walked from Colinton.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘And we all went out for the bells last night, and Portia got us all pished.’

‘All entirely her fault, I’m sure,’ said Tom wryly.

‘I wasn’t as bad as some,’ said Sophie, glaring at Dave.

‘Sore heads all round?’

‘And, Matt and Portia nearly didn’t make it. Did you hear people running in the background and the door banging, in Peter’s introduction?’

‘No? I was listening to what he was saying.’

‘Listen to it again. That’s them running in!’

‘Really? What — as, in, running in together?

‘Yes! Exactly!’

‘Together together?’

‘Yes! They succumbed to the bells!’ Sophie stole a glance at Dave, but he was fiddling with his phone. She decided he must have been sufficiently drunk to have forgotten.

‘Haha! That’s funny,’ said Tom. ‘I hope it doesn’t cause angst next year — this year. Do you think it’ll last?’

‘I don’t know — I think Portia’s been angling for it, for a while. Ever since Penelope landed Richard at the choir retreat.’

‘Ha — anything Penelope can do, Portia can do better. We’re all getting old and coupling up, Soph. There won’t be wild parties like there used to be in our gay bachelor days.’

* * *

And now Dave and Sophie were drinking mugs of tea listening to the broadcast, agreeing it didn’t sound nearly as bad as they expected.

‘Hope I never meet that ruddy Roddy again,’ said Sophie.

‘I thought he was all right,’ said Dave. ‘Bit quiet. Overwhelmed probably. I’d be a bit quiet if I was thrown into the middle of us lot.’

‘There’s Quentin!’ they both chorused at one point when his distinctive voice stuck out.

‘Portia fluffed that bit,’ said Dave as the organ played a curious inharmonious pedal.

‘I’m astonished she managed to play it at all,’ said Sophie.

‘It is pretty good, considering there were only eleven of us.’

‘Let’s listen to the bit where Matt and Portia run in again.’

Dave spooled the iPlayer back, and found Peter’s voice saying, ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ followed by the sound of two pairs of boots scrunching on snow, audible panting, and the door banging. They both laughed.

‘Who’s sending me emails on New Year’s Day?’ said Dave. ‘Oh — it’s to the choir from Peter.’

‘Oh, what’s he say?’ said Sophie.

Thank you for your efforts bla bla epic journeys bla … I thought you’d be interested to read this email I have just received from ruddy Roddy.

‘He doesn’t say that?’

‘No, he just says Roddy.’

‘What does ruddy Roddy say?’ said Sophie, beyond intrigued.

Dear Peter, many thanks for the opportunity to join Holy Trinity in their New Year morning service …

‘As if we’d have been doing it if it wasn’t on the radio!’

… I hadn’t had the best start to the day as my boiler had broken down the night before …

‘Bloody hell — no boiler this morning, can you imagine?’ Sophie shivered at the thought.

… so I hope I didn’t seem too grumpy! I must say, though, that I was completely cheered up and quite inspired by you and the choir. I’m not used to churches, but the choir were so friendly and welcoming I confess it changed all my expectations…’

‘Awww,’ said Sophie.

‘I bet he didn’t expect Ben and Frank,’ said Dave.

No one expects Ben and Frank!‘ said Sophie, with Pythonesque emphasis.

‘I mean, after his thing about gay marriage causing climate change.’

‘Oh yeah — they must have been a bit of an eye opener for him. Peter in a pink feather stole. Ha!’

‘Do you want to hear the rest of his email? You’ll like this bit.’

‘Go on?’

‘I didn’t know about the Fast for the Climate initiative but I was very impressed by the idea of a global movement of solidarity. I’m thinking of taking part myself, and will see if I can get Nature Scotland officially involved. I’ll contact Sophie in the next few days about whether we might be involved in the launch in February.’

‘Gosh,’ said Sophie.

‘There, thought you’d like that,’ said Dave. And what do we learn from this, Miss Strang?’

‘I dunno — what do we learn?’

‘Don’t go pre-judging people. Judge not, that ye be not judged.’

‘Ah — fuck off Jesus,’ said Sophie, and bombarded him with the screwed-up foil from a chocolate Santa.

* * *

Ursula is available as a Kindle novel for £2.58: search Ursula on Kindle or follow this link. All profits from its sale raise funds for my own eco-project, the refurbishment of a field centre in the Angus Glens, which you can read about here. Penelope would hate it. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and happy New Year! Eleanor @eleanormharris.

Guest Post: Esther, in Advent

On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.

A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.

I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?

Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:

The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.

Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.

And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.

Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.

This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!

During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.

It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.

But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.

When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.

We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:

This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.

We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.

But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.

From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.

But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.

Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?

This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?

And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.

There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.

I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.

When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:

  • Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
  • Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
  • Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
  • Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
  • Fear of celebrating our identity.

Fear is a powerful foe.

We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.

We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.

Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!

In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.

All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.

 

Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.

You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at fastfortheclimate.org

Meterology, Alan Hemming, and Forgiveness

This guest post by medical ethicist and Church of Scotland minister Professor Kenneth Boyd was delivered as a sermon at Evensong last night. I have heard him preach many times before but this one seemed particularly worthy of a wider audience. I hope you agree.

‘Abundant rain’, promised by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight, ‘poured down’ on Friday and much of yesterday, right on time, exactly as promised by the weather forecast on the BBC News website. The accuracy of modern weather forecasting, at least for the next few days, never ceases to amaze me. The science of weather forecasting, pioneered in 19th century Edinburgh by Alexander Buchan, Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society, has been of great benefit to humanity: it has saved countless lives by its warnings and it has assisted better planning of all sorts of future projects. It has of course limitations, as the forecasters themselves also warn: better and more accurate systems still need development to avoid tragedies like that on the Japanese volcano last week, or the fatal consequences of many of the extreme weather events increasingly related to climate change; but the scientific precision of modern meteorology is undoubtedly something to be grateful for; and an enormous advance, some might say, on the vague promises of ‘the early and the later rain as before’ uttered by the prophet Joel in our first reading tonight.

That said, it cannot escape notice that the scientific precision found in meteorology is also to be found in the science of ballistics, which is concerned with the launching, flight and exact landing of projectiles, and which at present therefore is of great relevance to the armed forces of our own and other nations who are pouring down a different kind of rain as they attack from the air the IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The historical and political reasons for this conflict are greatly complex and in their effects deeply tragic — not least this last week, in the murder of that truly good man Alan Hemming from Salford. But even deeper than the historical and political reasons for this conflict, is that darker side of human nature, against which the human goodness of Alan Hemming stands out in such contrast. The goodness of this ordinary man, simply desiring to help others in need, as he travelled with his Muslim friends, to convoy medical and food aid to refugees in Syrian camps — that goodness stands in stark contrast to the near madness of the desire at all costs to dominate and subjugate others, so cruelly and callously demonstrated by the words and actions of the IS militants. And that near madness in turn also stands in stark contrast to the rationality of the sciences which provide the weapons with which the rest of the world may be able, at least on the most optimistic scenario, to geographically contain that madness.

What these current events remind us of then, is what we still lack: a science of human nature and relationships, a science with which to guide the ballistics of the human heart into the ways of peace, justice and the gladness of which the prophet Joel spoke in our first reading, when the inhabitants of the land ’shall eat in plenty and be satisfied’. How long ago was that written? Nearly two thousand five hundred years ago; and yet after all that time, and even with the more recently rapid advance of so many sciences, the land of Israel and Palestine of which Joel spoke seems no nearer, and perhaps even farther away from that long deferred peace and plenty. Even now, we have no science of human nature and relationships, to put all these things right.

But is that correct? We do, of course, have what are called the human sciences, of psychology and social science for example, and also of historical research and political science; and all of these have important insights to contribute to our understanding of human nature and relationships, insights based on non-partisan analyses, which if we attend to them may help us see through the more extravagant and unsubstantiated claims of politics, the market, ideologies and religions. But of themselves these analytic insights may not be enough to guide us and the world to a better place of peace and justice. As well as these scientific insights, we need a science of a deeper and less academic sort: the word ‘science’ at root simply means knowledge, and the kind of knowledge we need is self-knowledge – which is precisely what our second reading tonight tells us about.

‘Do not worry about your life’ Jesus says, but ‘strive first for the kingdom of God’. What does this mean and is it even possible? To get a sense of what Jesus meant, I think, we need to remember that he also is quoted as saying that the kingdom he spoke of was not a visible earthly kingdom, and that it was ‘within you’ and ‘among you’. The kingdom of God, in other words, is a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves. It is a way of living and relating that is not disturbed and disfigured by fears and anxieties, especially those fears and anxieties that derive from seeing and valuing everything and everyone mainly or even only from our own point of view. Defending at all costs our own interests as we conceive them, and maintaining at all costs our own self-image, can lead to a very untruthful view of the world, since clearly there are other people in it. And if we find means of power over others, either as petty domestic or workplace tyrants, or as IS militants, we may become infected in different degrees by that near madness I mentioned earlier – the near madness of a secret desire to assuage our own fears and compensate for our own inadequacies by trying at all costs to dominate and subjugate others.

How is the kingdom of God different? Above all because it is the kingdom of forgiveness — a way of living with and relating to one another and ourselves that frees us from the need to maintain those appearances that can lead us into the absurdities of pride or the depths of despair — a way of living and relating that humbly and happily accepts that we are all in this together: God-forgiven first, and then slowly self-forgiven sinners, but thereby also given strength enough and courage enough to get through and wherever possible get over whatever causes our current fears and anxieties.

To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive against all those self-deluding and defensive reactions, moods and habits which render our view of the world untruthful — to strive against them, above all by holding fast to a deeply felt conviction that living goodness is at the heart of all things, including the human heart of each one of us, and that even our smallest efforts to love our neighbour as ourselves contribute to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

That may still seem a small thing in the great scheme of things, on the war-torn littered beaches of the world, where ignorant armies clash by night. And it will still be the task of generations well beyond our own to enter more deeply into that conversation and communion of faiths which also is needed to contribute, in global terms, to the coming of the kingdom, on earth as in heaven. But the kingdom of God and forgiveness, Jesus says, always is now open to us to strive for; and if we do that, striving for the kingdom of God each in our own different and particular way, as Alan Hemming from Salford did in his, with his Muslim friends, that will be our best way of paying tribute to him and to all the saints of God, who have fallen, fighting the good fight of faith and forgiveness. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Professor Kenneth Boyd. Sermon delivered at Evensong in St John’s Episcopal Church Edinburgh on the 16th after Trinity. Readings Joel 2, 21-27; Matthew 6, 25-33.

The First Clergy of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh

St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh was designed by George Gilbert Scott and consecrated in 1879. St Mary’s was funded by the bequest of two sisters, Mary and Barbara Walker, whose fortune as landowners had been made by the housing and railway development of the West End of Edinburgh. How did this new Cathedral understand itself? What identity did its architect provide? Who were its congregation? How did it belong in a Presbyterian industrial city? I begin with a group of eleven clergy who were closely connected with its foundation, and who provided its spiritual vision.

The Clergy

Bishop Charles Terrot and Dean Edward Ramsay of Edinburgh, and John Sinclair were older clergy who had known the Walker sisters, and were appointed by them as Trustees to plann the Cathedral.

In March 1871 Mary Walker died and the will came into effect, but the project was launched amidst a complete change in clerical personnel. Henry Cotterill became coadjutor in 1871 then Bishop on Terrot’s death in 1872. The energetic Dean Ramsay also died in 1872. Cotterill appointed James Montgomery Dean in 1873. Finally Sinclair, last of the old guard, died in 1875.

In 1878 the Cathedral chapter was appointed. Montgomery was made Dean of the Cathedral (an office later re-named Provost) as well as of the Diocese. Sub-Dean John Cazenove and Chaplains William Meredith and Reginald Mitchell-Innes comprised the other full-time staff, while Incumbent Canons Daniel Fox Sandford of St John’s Princes Street, Gildart Jackson of St James’ Leith and William Bird Bushby of the Duke of Buccleuch’s chapel at Dalkeith were senior clergy in the diocese of Edinburgh.

Scottish or English?

The question usually first asked of a Scottish Episcopalian’s identity is, ‘were they Scottish or English?’, but the answers for this group were far from straightforward.

Bishop Terrot’s parents, who met in India where Terrot was born, were both from French Hugenot families. When his father was killed in action his family invited his mother to live with them in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Terrot was educated in Cambridge but holidayed with his uncle, incumbent of the Episcopal Chapel at Haddington, succeeding him in that post and spending his entire career in the diocese of Edinburgh.

John Sinclair, son of the editor of the Statistical Account of Scotland, grew up in Edinburgh, studied in Oxford and became Rector of Sutterby in Lincolnshire, but aged 25 returned to the diocese of Edinburgh for seventeen years, before heading in 1839 for an ecclesiastical-political career in London.
Ramsay, son of the Sheriff of Kincardineshire, was largely educated in England: at Durham and Cambridge, with his uncle in Yorkshire, and as a curate in Somerset where, in charge in the absence of the rector, he was remembered for befriending the local Methodists. He returned to the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1824 and was distinguished by his energy and intelligence, playing an important role in removing barriers between the Scottish Episcopal and Anglican church, and shining as a national literary figure.

Bishop Cotterill was the son of the evangelical Rector of Blakeney in Norfolk and educated at Cambridge. He came to Scotland as Bishop of Edinburgh late in his career, after serving for thirty-five years in Madras, Brighton and Grahamstown in South Africa. Montgomery, grandson of the Baronet of Stobo, made his career in the land of his birth, although he received his theological training in Durham and spent two years as a curate in Dorset before Terrot recruited him as curate for St Paul’s York Place.

Cazenove, from London, had a British Tractarian formation as curate at St Peter’s, Leeds, followed by twenty years as Vice-Provost then Provost of the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae in Argyll, before settling in Edinburgh where he developed a distinguished educational career.

Sandford was a Scot by birth, education, and career. However, he was the grandson of a prominent English immigrant in whose diocese the elder clergy had grown up,  Bishop Daniel Sandford (d.1830), the first Englishman to become a bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church, assisting it to emerge from post-Jacobite obscurity and into communion with the Church of England. The migrant missionary gene emerged late in his grandson’s life: he became Bishop of Tasmania in 1883.

Jackson and Bushby were English immigrants, as were the young chaplains, Meredith and Mitchell-Innes, who were at the start of careers that would lead both of them further north: Meredith after a period as Vice-Principal of Chichester Theological College returned to Scotland as Rector of Muthill and then Crieff in Fife, while Mitchell-Innes held various diocesan posts in Edinburgh, Glasgow and finally Inverness.

To categorise any individual in this group as Scottish, English or even British would be misleading: collectively, they were Episcopalians of the British Empire. What did they think about theology, Scottish identity, church establishment, social action? What shape did the teaching in the new church take? To find out you’ll have to read my full article. All I need to do is write it.

Gothic Revival in Westminster

I was invited to St Matthew’s Westminster to give a talk on religion and environmental issues at the inaugural Just Festival Westminster, and unexpectedly found myself in a George Gilbert Scott church.

St Matthew’s, begun in 1849, was a high-church mission in a notorious slum area of Westminster known as the Devil’s Acre. I dread to think what the price of these flats might be now, but the narrow lanes and names like “Perkin’s Rents” and “Old Pye Street” recall a time when bare food and shelter were foremost in people’s minds. A church and, as so often in these missions more importantly a school, represented a great leap forward in civilization.

St Matthew’s is a strange church, because it burn down in the 1970s, so is a now a collection of rescued George Gilbert Scott fragments juxtaposed with unashamedly modern additions and reconstructions. There is still a sense of how the weary and heavy laden of Devil’s Acre might have come there to find rest amongst the beauty:

And been raised above the squalor of the lanes outside by the combined splendour and homeliness of George Gilbert Scott’s gilded reredos, depicting the nativity:

The fact that the original stained glass consists of rescued fragments makes one look at them with fresh appreciation, perhaps more as the original beholders saw them, perhaps feeling that they were rescued fragments of humanity themselves.


St Matthew’s is like a beautiful patchwork casket for new works of religious art. I particularly like this Mary and child, with her brazen nudity and all the stroppiness of the Magnificat. She isn’t just talking about God showing strength with his arm, scattering the proud and exalting the humble and meek, she’s jolly well doing it herself:

The Just Festival in which I was participating included a new piece of art showing different faces of God: much bigger and more spectacular than it appears in my picture. My friend Raymond, whose organisation of the Festival included procuring the enormous exhibition panel to display it on, was worried it would be a bit controversial but it seemed to meet with general acclaim.

Apparently the naked Mary had caused a bit of a stooshie. So did my “Earth be Glad” talk about religion and the environmental crisis. I feel I’m in good company. Whether you’re a nineteenth-century Tractarian missionary, or a twenty-first century environmental campaigner, it’s difficult to sing Mary’s song at choral evensong every week without becoming a bit revolutionary:

He hath showed strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
And hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he hath sent empty away.

So what are you actually asking us to do?

This seems to be the most frequently asked question at the talks I give on religion and the environmental crisis. I’m always slightly put out by it, because the whole talk is about what I think people ought to do. I agree people deserve more help than I give them in the talk: I’m just not sure I’m equipped to do it: the talk itself was my contribution and now it’s over to you. However, here is an attempt at a framework based on my talk which might form a useful programme for a group wishing to pursue the idea of looking for hope in the middle of mass extinction.

I think you need to learn, speak, and act.

LEARN

My talk is challenging and fresh not because I’m on the pulse of the zeitgeist, but because I hunt obscure things in dusty archives — in news that doesn’t make headlines, in ancient wisdom our culture neglects. As I argued in my talk, in the face of mass extinction maybe outdated religious concepts might turn out to be useful after all. The first law of history is ‘we ain’t no smarter than our ancestors’. If you agree we need a change in discourse, the first thing I’m asking you to do is to learn with me. Your brains are as big as mine. If I’m ahead in my thinking it’s only because I’ve been puzzling over this for the past ten years. There’s only one of me and there are many of you. The world needs your brains. Your first task is, get learning.

“When people know what they are facing, that’s when they dig deep, and find that miraculous hope and courage. That’s when they stop being afraid.”

Learn about prophets

“You are Jonah. You must be thrown into the sea. You must find the courage that’s only found when you’ve sunk to the very bottom. You must be vomited up on the beach, and you must go and deliver the message. You must turn into the hope.”

A prophet in Christian tradition is not someone who foretells the future by reading entrails. It is someone whose insights about the present are so clear that they can understand the probability of future consequences. This is what climate scientists do today, as well as those involved in equally important and less controversial environmental research. However, what makes a prophet different from most scientists is the scientist must retain a detached and objective perspective, whereas the prophet commits his or her whole physical life to becoming the message. This often involves great personal sacrifice, but this is the secret of the prophet’s influence: their actions tend to speak louder than their words. A valuable study exercise for a group would to each take one of the prophets in the Bible and see how they go about this, and to do what I did with Jonah. You might be surprised. Try it for Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and Christianity’s greatest prophet (alongside his other roles), Jesus. Have each person report back and then discuss them. What would it mean for you to take these prophets as your role models today?

– We have an environmental crisis going on, and you’re asking us to sit around doing bible study?

– How can a discourse change, can thought patterns change, without thinking and learning? The problem is, you have been used to fruitless, theoretical discussions about the bible, about theories of theology or morality that can never be put to the test or be other than subjective. I’m asking you to read it as a book of practical wisdom that’s relevant for real life now. Oh and quit the fruitless religious discussions.

“Whether you believe in God, or not, or don’t know, today it doesn’t matter, because the situation of Jonah stays the same, and our situation, so spookily similar to Jonah’s, stays the same.”  

Learn about the environmental crisis

“Ecosystems are good at recovering, but faced with increasingly violent assaults from climate change, pollution and exploitation, they cannot recover, and eventually collapse. Not decline gradually: collapse. If this is new to you, I urge you to go and find out about it. The picture has got spectacularly worse over the past few years, and the science has not been widely reported.”

Find out what scientists are saying about the environment: global deforestation, the Pacific rubbish dump, Himalayan glacier melt, what mass extinction means. Read the report on the state of the oceans (stateoftheocean.org). I do commend Twitter not because it’s trendy but because it’s useful for getting at the right information quickly: many scientists use it to provide ongoing succinct updates of what they regard as their most important findings. Find a teenager to show you how to use it, then get in touch with me (@eleanormharris) and I’ll point you in the direction of useful resources.

– But Twitter sounds difficult and strange and scary!

– You asked me for hope. I’ve looked for hope and found it in you. Do you expect it to be easy? If you think Twitter sounds difficult and scary, I think you will have difficulty being the hope of the world. As Jesus said (when he wasn’t saying ‘don’t be afraid’), if you can’t be trusted with trivial things, whose going to put you in charge of more important ones?

ACT

“Either we transform our eating, or we starve. Either we transform our travelling, or we stop forever. Either we transform our living, or we die. Not modify: not reduce a bit: not next year: totally transform, now.”

I didn’t mean this metaphorically, and I wasn’t exaggerating.

It is often objected that your individual effort won’t make any difference. This is true of the individual who is merely doing things to salve their conscience, or as the result of an individual advertising campaign. But it is not true in your case, because you are prophets, and an essential part of being a prophet (as you discovered earlier) is that they are completely personally committed to their message.

“Get out of this church and demonstrate that humanity can be more than just a rogue species”

Here are two suggestions:

First suggestion:

  1. Go through the gospels and find all the passages where people ask Jesus what they should do.
  2. Make a list of his advice.
  3. Take it.

Second suggestion:
1. Make one list of all the things you do which contribute to mass extinction, by using unsustainably produced resources, polluting, or damaging ecosystems. Do this in discussion with a group and with the help of on-line resources.
2. Make a second list of all the ways you can think of to create an environmental handprint, that is, to increase biodiversity and counter mass extinction.

3. Which do you think is currently bigger, your handprint or your footprint? Challenge yourselves and one another to live so your handprint is bigger than your footprint, to leave the world more biodiverse than you found it.

Try both. How do they compare?

Handprint Ideas

tree planting and reforestation
wildlife gardening, window boxes for bees, green roofs and ‘no mow’ grass areas
using consumer power to persuade producers of food or wood to encourage biodiversity
install solar panels to generate electricity without contributing to climate change
find out about biodiversity and land use (grazing, crops, housing, recreation like golf courses and grouse moor), and support policies that improve biodiversity
give to charities and invest in projects that conserve or restore biodiversity (for example, money saved reducing your environmental footprint, or you might consider your pension and other investments)
support the global education of women: it’s the quickest, cheapest and fairest way to slow population growth and increase sustainable practices locally

SPEAK

“You have to be the prophets, who proclaim the message.”

Prophets speak. I got your interest by speaking. Discourse change leads policy change and happens, sometimes quite quickly, when the message of a few voices is taken up by many. My talk used the model of Jonah’s message spreading around Nineveh then being taken up as policy by the king. You think I’m naturally good at speaking: I’m not. I’m naturally inarticulate and prefer hiding in history archives, which is why I wrote my talk out word-for-word and spent much time rehearsing it. If you think what I said is right and important, it’s up to you to find ways to tell other people: not just in talks, but in conversation, by letter, by postcard, in sermons, in ten-foot-high letters on a wall, on Twitter (scary!!). I can send you the text of my talk if you like, but it would be much better to write your own. In your group, make a list of practical ways you could be prophets, and speak to the powerful.

– But speaking out is not my thing: it’s difficult and scary!

– Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of looking a fool. The only fear allowed round here is `fear of the Lord’.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 1.7

“You’ll realise as the story unfolds that `the Lord’ represents everything that happens which isn’t human decision or will: objective scientific knowledge; the tugging voice of conscience; the uncontrollable forces of nature.”

FINALLY

Use your initiatives. I don’t know much and I’m not in charge of anything. I only have one brain and you have many.

If you’re reading this without having heard the talk, do invite me to come and give it. I’m told it’s thought-provoking. Clergy and non-churchgoers seem to find it most interesting, which is interesting!

And do keep in touch. Comment on this blog. My email is eleanormharris@gmail.com. Do that scary Twitter thing.

There’s a discourse that needs changed. You are the prophets. Go and make more.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. 2 Corinthians 5:11

“Nothing will ever be the same. Don’t be afraid. Turn into the hope.”

Holy boldness: Caroline Scott’s Family Prayers

The Gothic Revival architect George Gilbert Scott was devastated by the death of his wife Caroline and troubled by guilt that he his flourishing career had left her too much alone. Just as he never designed his own house but let his professional work stand as his legacy, so his monument to her was not to design a lavish grave, but to publish her own creative legacy, a volume of Family Prayers, ‘on which’, Scott writes, ‘she for many years spent much of her leisure time’.

In the model of the pious household, the head, George, would be expected to lead family prayers, but as he was so frequently absent the task would devolve onto his second-in-command, Caroline, who was thereby given free rein to be both leader and liturgist, a role she could never have taken under the gothic arches her husband was building for the Church of England itself.

Caroline’s little services, with titles such as ‘Monday evening’ or ‘Thursday morning’, 430 pages of them, luxuriate in the idiom of the Book of Common Prayer. She included the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer and Doxology in most of the services to give them an element of participation, with perhaps one response from the set of responses in the Prayer Book offices. When she said ‘O Lord open our lips’, her family would automatically respond ‘And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise’, without need for a prompt. The services typically included a few verses from the bible, one of the collects (short prayers for particular occasions) written by Cranmer for the BCP, and often a few verses of one of the canticles set for daily offices in the BCP. All these are easily identifiable for the historian who also happens to sing Choral Matins and Evensong.

In addition to this familiar material, the meat of Caroline’s services is other, often longer petitions, all in the musical, antiquated idiom of the BCP (as antiquated to Victorians as to us, but familiar as the language of Religion), but not quoted from it. In his preface her husband wrote, ‘I am not able to tell which parts of them are original; but I know that they were composed, or compiled, with constant reference to all old precedents and authorities to which their writer had access; and, perhaps, more largely than others to those of Bishop Jeremy Taylor’. Here is a sample, the second-last prayer in the book, A Prayer for the Evening:

Almighty Father, who givest the sun for a light by day, and coverest the earth by night with the robe of darkness; vouchsafe we beseech Thee, to receive us this night and ever into Thy favour and protection; defending us from all evils. Save, defend, and keep us evermore; and may our souls be sanctified by Thy Spirit, and glorified by Thy infinite mercy, in the day of the glorious appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. — Amen. p.429.

I have an advantage over Scott, which is that I have at my fingertips a global searchable database of digitised books, which includes the works of Jeremy Taylor. So I decided to paste some samples of Caroline Scott’s prayers into Google, and find out where her words came from.

Sometimes she edits and adapts the Bible and prayer book. Here she cuts a line from the BCP Collect for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, refocusing it from human failure to human possibility:

Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with thy perpetual mercy; and, because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall, keep us ever by thy help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here, she re-works some advice from James 4.8-10 into a liturgical call to confession, replacing his self-flagellatory language with her own idea of a more measured, constructive repentance:

Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. and make confession of your sins unto him, with a hearty sorrow and humble hope — begging for mercy at the throne of grace.

Early in my searching I found a quotation from the kind of source I was expecting, the Anglican writers who in the seventeenth century wrote a great deal of devotional and theological material in the BCP idiom. Caroline quoted from an Exhortation to the Candidates for the degree of Master of Arts in the University of Edinburgh by Robert Leighton (1611-1684) Archbishop of Glasgow. Excited by the prospect that this method would enable me to re-create Caroline’s library, I googled on. Yet every other unfamiliar prayer I looked up returned only one result: Caroline Scott, Family Prayers. I found nothing by Jeremy Taylor. My small sample suggests that many of the Family Prayers are indeed Caroline’s own words.

O merciful Father, who invitest all penitent sinners to come to the fountain of mercy to be pardoned; all the oppressed to be relieved; all the sorrowful to be comforted; admit us, O gracious God, to partake of these Thy loving-kindnesses — that we may not only hear of Thy mercies, but may participate in them; not only see the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven set wide open, but may we enter in. Wedneday Morning, p.29

What was her theology? There is much about sin and repentance, although as the edits above suggest, Caroline rejects the powerlessness suggested by the BCP Calvinism in favour of a theology of participation and possibility:

O enable us, most gracious Father, to work out our own salvation, knowing that Thou wilt work with us, and wilt assist us by Thy grace; for we know that he who heartily endeavours to please God, and searches what His will is, that he may obey it, certainly loves God, and nothing that loves God can perish. — Tuesday Morning, p.25.

I was reminded of the Scottish theologian Thomas Erskine, who rejected the legalistic direction which Evangelical theology was taking in the 1820s in favour of a relational spirituality: salvation meant encountering, imitating, and eventually participating in God. Caroline’s prayer are similarly warm, relational and personal, with little interest in church or society, all about oneself and the universe. There are not many degrees of separation between them: Erskine was closely connected to the Sandfords in Edinburgh, probably a member of Bishop Daniel Sandford’s congregation in the 1810s and 20s, and at his death given his final communion by the Bishop’s grandson, Rev Daniel Fox Sandford, Rector of St John’s. The bishop’s daughter — and rector’s aunt, Frances, had married the bishop’s curate Charles Lane and settled in Wrotham, Kent, where the Scotts spent the summer of 1868. ‘My wife […] greatly enjoyed her stay there, and the more so, as the country around is very beautiful, and as she there made several very agreeable friendships especially with Mr and Mrs Lane at the Rectory’, wrote George (Personal and Professional Recollections ed. Gavin Stamp 1995, p.259 and 465). Frances was a serious theologian herself, as the letters to her father the bishop in answer to her questions demonstrate. Her husband’s theology focused on the Holy Spirit. ‘You know his favourite theme so well’, said the preacher at his funeral sermon. ‘We know how earnestly he himself daily prayed for an outpouring of the same Holy Spirit; and what a special day in his calendar was Whitsun day!’ (J.H. Jaquet, In Memoriam (London 1879) p.12) All these writers seem to share a warm, relational theology distinct from the legalism of evangelicalism, the mysticism of Tractarianism or the erastianism of the ‘Broad Church’.

Caroline’s themes in her prayers combine a sense of the epicness of God’s universe combined with the practicality of the Christian’s daily task. I was struck by her use of the phrase ‘holy boldness’ for one Sunday Morning prayer:

Give us, we beseech Thee, O Jesus, a holy boldness to confess before men, that Thou art the Sovereign whom we will serve. We have received from Thee the bounty of Thy grace. O assist us to be Thy faithful soldiers and servants unto our lives’ end. — Amen.

The phrase ‘holy boldness’ is not, to my knowledge, biblical, but Caroline didn’t make it up. I’m not sure what source she was likely to have found it in, but it is widespread in devotional writing and seems to be a translation of the Hebrew chutzpah.

My very brief sampling of Family Prayers could give me little more than an admiration of Caroline’s command of the religious idiom, her familiarity with her sources, and her confident filleting and reworking of them, with a great deal of her own material, into an original theological text. Digitisation, however, raises the possibilities of studying the theology of women from their unreferenced, private texts like these in ways that would previously impossible: reconstructing reading lists, identifying original passages, and then analysing theology in the light of contemporary ideas of their male counterparts in churches and universities. I should like to see church historians write a great deal more about the chutzpah-theology of women like Frances Lane and Caroline Scott.

St Michael’s Longstanton: a Gothic Revival role model

I read about St Michael’s Longstanton on Friday, and found myself in the next Cambridgeshire village on Sunday. And the sun was out. And there was moss! I wouldn’t like to discourage Serendipity by ignoring such opportunities presented by her to test my ability to explain the principles of gothic revival. There’s a great deal I don’t say in this very short summary, but I hope it sparks your interest.

West end of St Michael’s Longstanton, with its ancient well and churchyard wall.

St Michael’s is important in the gothic revival because in about 1842 the Cambridge Camden Society’s journal The Ecclesiologist identified it as perfectly embodying the principles of gothic architecture as set out by Pugin in the ideal form for small village churches — such as were required in countless colonial settlements. As a result, St Michaelses popped up all around the world.

What gives a gothic building away is the windows: the revivalists called it the Pointed style. They divided the gothic into three phases, easily identifiable by the window tracery: 
  • early, with simple tracery, regarded as full of energy but underdeveloped
  • middle, decorated or flamboyant, regarded as the high-point of the style
  • late or perpendicular, in which the vertical bars go all the way to the top, regarded as degenerate and enervated

The early thirteenth-century St Michael’s was built in the decorated style which the Ecclesiologists liked best.

Decorated tracery in St Michael’s nave. The pulpit and lectern are on either side of the nave, at its junction with the chancel.

Whereas the earliest gothic revivalists, such as the writers of gothic novels in the late eighteenth century, were interested in the romantic and sublime possibilities of the appearance of gothic decoration, Pugin and the Ecclesiologists were interested in structure. St Michael’s fits Pugin’s principles of architectural authenticity. Firstly, he appearance of the building should show:

  1. how it is engineered
  2. what materials it is made of. 

There may be plenty of decorative carving and painting, but no veneers or, for example, a plaster ceiling imitating a stone vault, or sandstone pillars veneered with wood painted to look like marble.

Secondly, carved decoration is not gratuitous but ornaments structural features, such as the window tracery, or the alternating rounded and squared pillar heads below: it is decorated construction, not constructed decoration. Pugin observed that this was the case for all gothic decoration. A larger building than St Michael’s, such as a cathedral, had a more complex structure and therefore more opportunity for ornament: foliated pinnacles, for example, add important weight to a flying buttress, while grotesque gargoyles are decorated drainpipes.

St Michael’s is an honest building: you can see its pillars and arches holding up the roof, decorated pillar and window heads, wooden ceiling, tiled floor, stone walls, and thatched roof.

What made St Michael’s really ideal for the Ecclesiologists, however, was that it incorporated, in pocket-sized form, all the features they considered essential for the proper liturgical ordering of a church. For Christians of the Enlightenment it was the intellectual content of worship which was important, if the sermon argued the truth persuasively and the prayers expressed the right petitions, worship could take place in any convenient hall. But for Christians influenced by the Romantic movement, this was too dry. As physical, emotional beings, people needed to worship in sensory spaces which appealed directly to their feelings and physically embodied their spiritual principles. The shape of the space was therefore very important. They made a list which included such items as:

  1. a clearly separated nave and the chancel, with more ornament in the chancel
  2. a porch to the south
  3. a bell tower suitable to the scale of the church
  4. three steps up to the altar
  5. an east window with three lights, to represent the Trinity

St Michael’s had all these and many other essential liturgical details which made it the perfect model of a small church. It was copied all around the world. 

St Michael’s has a south-facing porch, bell tower, clear separation of (larger) nave and chancel (in the foreground), and buttresses supporting the walls.

The modern visitor’s eye might be more likely to be caught by the imposing key you borrow to get in, which goes in and turns the opposite way to modern keys, and the ancient, perhaps pagan, well, with its stone cross cut into the rear wall: the local tradition is babies can only be baptised when the morning sun shines from the east through the cross and into the well:

But if you visit St Michael’s — or any church built in the Medieval thirteenth century, or the Victorian 1840s, have a look for Pugin and the Ecclesiologists’ principles of gothic: visible engineering and materials, ornamented structure rather than constructed ornament, and liturgical ordering in the architecture. For them, this wasn’t just a pretty, interesting, or convenient building, it was, like the faith it was built to house, intended to be a true one.

George Gilbert Scott and the Scottish Episcopal Church

I’m four days in to a new project looking at the neo-gothic architect George Gilbert Scott and the Scottish Episcopal Church. This 16-month project is part of a larger Leverhume-funed one led by Professor Sam McKinstry at University of West of Scotland, investigating Gilbert Scott’s highly-successful business networks.

George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was the leading neo-gothic architect of his day in terms of the scale of his practice, successfully employing a large number of people who worked in a ‘house style’. You can find out easily about Gilbert Scott, but history has often judged him harshly. It was an unfortunate feature of the architects, musicians and theologians of the nineteenth-century church (as in wider culture) that their high sense of drive and progress necessitated looking down upon their immediate predecessors, and even on their own earlier work. Their biographies and autobiographies bequeathed this patronising attitude to historians, who only recently have begun to learn that deficiencies based on what they couldn’t have known yet might be less important than their insights and wisdom which were subsequently forgotten. I don’t know a great deal about gothic revival architecture so ask me again what I think of Gilbert Scott’s architecture in a few weeks.

George Gilbert Scott designed six Scottish Episcopal Churches:
1855 St Paul’s Dundee
1858 St Cuthbert’s Hawick and St Mary’s Broughty Ferry
1861 St James the Less, Leith
1871 St Mary’s Glasgow
1876 St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh.
He also designed or revised elements of the Episcopal Churches in St Andrew’s and Kilmarnock and the clergy training college at Glenalmond, and designed memorials for two of the most famous Victorian Episcopalians, Dean Ramsay and Bishop Forbes.

This was a motley mixture. The churches in Dundee, Leith and Glasgow were the original Episcopal congregations of those places, thrown out of their parish churches when Presbyterianism was established in 1689. Hawick and Broughty Ferry were both new missions in towns that had no Episcopal congregation. The Dundee and Glasgow churches were later raised to Cathedral status, but only St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh was actually designed as a Cathedral, a new foundation in a small city already well-stocked with large Episcopal Churches.

The Duke of Buccleuch appears to have been an important link between the Episcopal Church and Gilbert Scott, with whom he shared a surname. Buccleuch commissioned Gilbert Scott to provide plans for a chapel at Drumlanrig Castle: these were not executed although a chapel was opened in 1850. Buccleuch appears to have funded the mission at Hawick, and laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Edinburgh.

The bishops of the dioceses, Forbes of Brechin, Terrot of Edinburgh and Trower of Glasgow, were largely responsible for instigating the projects and in three cases were commissioning churches for their own use. They were a mixture of Scottish and English, High and Broad church influences.

Gilbert Scott, whose early Evangelicalism mellowed into Broad Anglicanism, appears to have followed a similar spiritual path to Bishop Terrot, as several clergy did who, like Terrot, began their career under Bishop Sandford of Edinburgh. It is no surprise that, when spending a summer at Wrotham in Kent, the Gilbert Scotts formed a warm friendship with the local rector and his wife — Charles Lane, Sandford’s former curate, who had married the bishop’s clever daughter Frances. Gilbert Scott, like Sandford and his followers, were well-disposed towards the High Church although they were not part of it, admiring its combination of missionary zeal, social concern, and passion for historical tradition, and he gained his first Scottish commission from the Episcopal Churches first, and for a long time only, Tractarian bishop Forbes.

My hope is that investigating the contacts and networks which led to the construction of these churches will provide an insight into the importance of Gilbert Scott’s own spirituality in his highly successful business — which will involve unearthing a great deal of Episcopalian history along the way.

Please do get in touch with me if you have a particular interest in Gilbert Scott or in these churches, which I’m certainly hoping to contact and visit in the course of the year, and follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris for future updates.