Inclusion, exclusion and the COVID revolution

We’ve just enjoyed an excellent online lecture from York by Prof Sarah Rees Jones on how work to open up mediaeval records is giving us great new details, even personal stories, on how the North reacted to the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.

We’ve also enjoyed online church services and valued the way we can join in both local worship and drop in at Taizé and Iona for instance.

But the same revolution that has opened up access to some has restricted it for others: those without the technology; those who find the style of online events unhelpful; those who crave real presence. Many are included, for which I rejoice; some are newly excluded, at which I lament.

What was fascinating in the York talk, among many similarities and differences to these present times, was that Rees Jones pointed up just this same effect in the Black Death years.

As I know from my own research, those years saw English flower again as the language of poetry, instruction, the court and the law. Henry V writes home from Agincourt in English. The middling sort started to keep legal records in the burgeoning guilds for instance. New rights could be established and old ones secured. You could present your case in court in your mother tongue.

But as Rees Jones pointed out, there were losers too. Those who because of poverty, background, disability, poor education and all the rest did not have the chance to join in this new pattern of communication became even more excluded. It was a time when the poor got poorer and the rich richer, and seeds of social division were sown whose harvest we still reap today.

The York project is self-consciously trying to broaden access to old records and open up the learning adventure. Are we?

Worship at Michaelchurch for over a millennium

We continued our COVID church-crawl around our local Churches Conservation Trust properties today with a visit to Michaelchurch (no further dedication needed), quite near Pencoyd, in the hilly country overlooking the Wye off the Hereford-Ross road. It sits low and long, nestled in the hillside, reminding me of similarity remote upland churches in Cumbria, by an ancient man-made pond, hinting at this being a place of worship even before Christianity arrived, as does the Roman altar to the God of the Crossroads now kept in the church after being rediscovered in pieces in the building and nearby. The earliest Christian building is said to have been consecrated by Bishop of Herwald of Llandaff, reminding us that we are in Archenfeld, a former Welsh territory (and indeed in the old Welsh-named parish of Tretire: this must always have been a chapelry).

The surviving structure and strong if rather rustically carved font go back to soon after the Conquest, though the chancel is a thirteenth century addition (when the plaster was beautified with red-lined representation of ashlar) and the spacious porch joined it in the seventeenth (when that was pained over with texts). The screen is perhaps 16th-century, the pulpit 17th, the ceiling 18th, the choir stalls 19th. (wit a rather fine Michael) – and so the church quietly tiptoed through the centuries, acquiring successive plaques to the Fisher family who perhaps paid for it, until it finally fell asleep in the arms of the CCT. Warmest thanks to them and their local volunteers who keep it open and spick and span for us to visit (and for an annual service in the summer). Drop in yourself and share a moment of peace and quiet too.

St Denys Pencoyd, where Sir John Davies once taught the flock

Drive south of Hereford towards Ross, tracking the Wye but in rolling uplands above it, and after a few miles you’ll see Pencoyd signed off to the right. Follow the winding lane and you’ll come to small hamlet with a couple of good houses and barns – and a church, dedicated rather unusually, to St Denys. Nicholson’s 19th-century restoration hides most of its history, but the solid tower and font betray its late Norman origins, perhaps one of the many 13th-century builds and rebuilds that field up the corners of the countryside.

It’s of special interest to me, though, for something that happened there in two hundred years later, when one Sir John Davies was the curate. “Sir” not because he was a knight but because he was a non-graduate priest, and that was the courtesy title they were allowed as “gentlemen unto God”, and curate (as we would call him now) because Pencoyd was a chapelry not a parish church – and Davies himself had probably only been in orders a couple of years.

What’s so interesting is the the book he made to resource himself in his new role of teaching his flock – both the basics of the faith like the Ten Commandments and the Seven Sacraments – and the basics of Latin grammar still survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (now split as MSS Douce 103 and Douce 108). The main items are John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests and Festial, the ideal textbooks for a new cleric, but my object of study was an elementary grammar of Latin in English – one of a raft of them I edited for my doctorate – and here is part of its text in the Herefordshire dialect of the time (the words in bold are dialect markers):

How mony tymes byn there? V. Wych v? The tyme that ys noo, the tyme that ys nott fulliche a-gonne, and the tyme that ys a-gon, the tyme that more then a-goon and the tyme that ys to cum. How knowyst the tyme that ys no? For he betokynth the tyme that ys no, as amo ‘y loue’ . . . How knowyst an interieccyon? For he ys a party of speke vndeclynyd the wych shewt a monnys wyll wt a vnperfytt voyce, as wondur, drede or merwell.

So next time you drop in at Pencoyd, listen for the voices – of God’s whispered word, and the echoes of a priest and people teaching and learning long ago.

Saving Christmas

The Jeremiahs have it… The COVID statistics seem to be making it perfectly clear that things are going to get worse before they get better, and I think the public mood is slowly trying to come to terms with that.

We were desperate that it should not be so. Desperate to get back to life as we liked it. Just life, not this dark pall of deathliness and depression. And I suspect we will also now start to be desperate again, this time to save Christmas.

Not Christmas as a theological purist would have it. That is all about Christmas saving us, not us saving it. That is about real light shining perilously in real darkness, not fairy lights on a tree. But the theologians have a point. Even if warm hearths and family togetherness are what we long for, they are powerful because they speak not just of a kiss under the mistletoe or a blow-out meal but of a deeper sense that winter will not have things all its own way, of unconquerable light. We’ve been celebrating it since Stonehenge, and we want and need to celebrate it now.

But just saying ‘boo’ to the darkness, or indeed the virus, and getting on with the party is going to end in tears. Let me put it starkly. It’s three weeks before Christmas. Blow it, you say, we’re going to have a party. It’s two weeks before Christmas and, blow it you say, let’s go shopping, but some of your friends cry off because they’re feeling a bit poorly. It’s one week before Christmas and you’re feeling a bit poorly yourself; your best mate has just gone into hospital. It’s Christmas, and … well, the shine has well and truly gone off the gingerbread and no-one is feeling much like celebrating any more.

So? What can we do? Is there anything we can do? Let’s go back to those theologians, those keepers of the Christian tradition that Christmas is perhaps all about anyway.

From ancient times Christians kept fasts before they dived into their feasts. They didn’t take the waiting out of wanting: they knew that a bit of waiting, a bit of preparing, a bit of pondering, would make the feast all the more fun.

Cue Advent: not just the Advent of a boozy miniature a day in December, but the Advent that starts 4 Sundays before Christmas and takes us slowly and carefully through the Bible’s story of how we got into this pickle we call life, and how God’s plan to join us in it and raise us from it came to pass. It’s all those readings you’ve heard at a traditional Carol Service, but old school, taken slowly, savoured for all they’re worth. Then at Christmas the Great Twelve Days of Feasting can begin.

So, this year, how about Saving Christmas by Keeping Advent? Look for safe ways to buy the presents and order the food. Give some time to writing some personal cards or messages. Then dust down your Bible and look up the stories for yourself. Light a candle for each Sunday. And enjoy the peace. Peace now, as you give Christmas the best chance it can have of going off well; and the promise of a peace that passes our understanding that can surround us come what may.

Don’t Worry! Pardon…

Sermon preached at the British Guild of Agricultural Journalist‘s Service of Thanksgiving for Harvest 2020

“Don’t worry,” said Jesus. And there’s plenty to worry about. Harvest yields round our way are about a third down on last year, after the wettest February on record that tried hard to turn Hereford into an island, three big storms and the driest Spring since 1961. Stock up with straw now if you can: it’s going to be scarce, which will hit those raising livestock. And all that’s before COVID and all its complications. Or Brexit.

“Don’t worry.” But of course we do, and the agricultural community as much as any, though their famous self-reliance means it can be hard to sense danger, until disaster strikes. The NFU, YFC and chaplaincy here set up a scheme for voluntary labour to support isolating farmers. There was little take-up. But suicide rates in the county’s farming community were already higher than average, and nationally 81% of farmers under 40 believe that mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today.

So how do we help ourselves, and others, not to worry? If ever there was a sermon theme that cuts through the platitudes that has to be it, whether you are a farmer or a journalist, or a bishop in retirement. I’m preaching to myself here too.

“Consider the ravens,” says Jesus. What an odd place to start. Consider how to shoot them, I suppose, if you’re an unreconstructed sheep-farmer. Or break out the Irri-Tape and Terror Eyes if you’ve seen the light. Who thinks up these names? Agricultural journos making a bob or two on the side, I suppose.

But, consider the ravens, consider the lilies – we’re getting onto safer ground now – consider just what an amazing natural world we’re set in. Looking at a canvas like that our own worries, however dark, can become part of a bigger pattern of light and shade, part of a bigger story. And getting perspective, even if you can’t quite bring God into it, is a serious step towards mental health.

As is looking at and giving thanks for the other people around us, even on Zoom. Yes, I know. They’re a dismal bunch. And they’re thinking just the same about you. Except they’re probably not. Most of us succumb to the “grass is greener” syndrome and assume that everyone else is much better than we are, which is sort of depressing until you turn it round and think that by the same token that means that everyone else is rating you as better than them. Touché: and another step towards mental health is taken. Jesus got there first of course: “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” You’re worth it, even if you don’t use l’Oréal.

And then, finally – because I am all that stands between you and a party – what is all that worrying going to do for you anyway? It won’t just fail to add a single hour to your span of life, it’ll probably shorten it. So if by now we can find enough perspective to see beyond those feelings of threat that fry our brains, let’s switch on the little grey cells and do what the Good Lord suggested instead: put some energy into doing the things that build the sort of society that he called the kingdom of God and you can call what you want, but one in which any of us and all of us can find fairness and happiness. And what do you know, we may just find that not only do the beastly worries shrink back into the shadows, but life itself starts to feel worth living again.

Look up, at the world around us in all its beauty; look round, at your family and friends in all their worth; and look out, and help build a better world. It’s got to be worth a go.

A razor-sharp spire at Yazor, St Mary, keeping watch over the Wye

Blink and you’ll miss the hamlet of Yazor. But driving along the A480 there is no missing this rocket-ship of a spire, the mid-nineteenth-century folie de saintété of the Prices of Foxley. The cost broke them, it’s said, but happily the Davenports who bought the estate took the church to the heart, and it served as the parish church for a century or so before the costs also outran the pockets of the local parishioners and the Churches Conservation Trust stepped in to give it a decent retirement.

The old lady still enjoys having visitors, and we called on her earlier today. You’ll need to park carefully on the verge of the main road, and follow the overgrown footpath marked by the brown sign, before trying the doorknob which looks shut fast, but isn’t.

Inside, as the guide-board says, there is still a whiff of incense in the air, as the architecture reaches as relentlessly upwards as the churchmanship. The huge Tortoise must have kept the worshippers warm in body as well in spirit, and we enjoyed the harvest-ish window celebrating a Davenport wedding, and the cunningly hinged pews for the Sunday school children in the stubby north transept, allowing it double for other use.

Do call by if you’re passing and pay your respects – and say a prayer too.

Resources for Remembering Robert Grosseteste on his Feast Day (9th October)

This updated blog is posted again today to provide a resource for this year’s celebration of Grosseteste’s Feast Day on Friday (October 9th)

October 9th is the Feast Day of a medieval Bishop who also has a serious claim to be the first “modern physicist”, Robert Grosseteste, who was Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253. He was born in Suffolk circa 1175 and his early education and clerical service were in Hereford where Bishop William de Vere was encouraging the newly transmitted Aristotelian scientific learning from the Arabic world to take root, extending the study of the liberal arts to include physics and observational astronomy.

There Grosseteste began to write on the liberal arts and especially the scientific subjects of the “quadrivium”, composing treatises on light and sound for instance, as well as being active in teaching the clergy in pastoral care.

From Hereford Grosseteste moved to the benefice of Abbotsley in Lincoln diocese, also holding the archdeaconry of Leicester for a while, but then focusing his energy in Oxford where he taught the Franciscans and became the Master of Students for the emergent University, leanrnig and teaching theology alongside his interest in the arts.

Despite his advancing years he was then the surprise candidate to be the next bishop of Lincoln, and proved a most active one, remaining in post for 18 years until his death, raising standards, challenging the Pope on bad practices, and after his death being seen as saint, although formal canonisation was blocked by the papal court he had confronted.

As a bishop Grosseteste remained an active author in both theology and science, in both cases drawing on new texts from the east in Greek and from the Islamicate. His importance as a pioneer of modern scientific thinking is now being recognised as a collaboration of mediaevalists, scientists and even theologians (even me!) in the prize-winning Ordered Universe Project toward to produce a new edition of his treatises (first volume now out by OUP), using all their skills together in a sort of academic archaeology to unearth the real meaning and message of his work. It’s a most exciting adventure, and you can follow its progress at

At the heart of Grosseteste’s integration as a Christian bishop of faith and science is the belief that the universe was called into being by God in a wonderfully ordered way – an order that we can still see and measure and wonder at in both scientific and spiritual ways, but an order too that has been broken as creation has turned away from its maker, most particularly by the wrong use of human free will. But his Christian faith teaches him that the same God who made the world in love also entered that world in love to begin a new work of restoration and redemption, in which we humans are invited to join. For Grosseteste joining in that work or restoration took many inter-linked forms: personal prayer of course, and the liturgy and good ordering of the church, but also and importantly education, training our understanding to see again the good order of God’s world and our desires to work towards it (aspect and affect as he would have called them). So the liberal arts and new sciences are very much part of our total work of becoming fully and properly human, as we were intended to be, and restoring the created world too to its proper order and balance.

This is a vision that we can whole-heartedly affirm today as educationalists, environmentalists and believers alike. So don’t let October 9th pass by without remembering the bishop who was perhaps our first modern scientist, and whose thinking still has the power to inspire us today.

To help in his remembrances I have gathered together a selection of prayers and readings and other liturgical material, which you will find beneath the fold.

Continue reading

Covid-19: how are you coping?

That’s the title of a research project that a contact of mine, Revd Dr Roger Abbott at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge, is running. He’s a specialist in studying disaster response, aiming to learn lessons from major disasters that can help the Christian community cope better when disasters occur, but, equally importantly, learn how they can help natural hazards not turn into disasters.

This present project will involve conducting in-depth interviews with volunteer participants from local churches.The research will be conducted under strict ethical protocols, and will offer confidentiality and anonymity to each participant, as well as being conducted under The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion’s Christian ethos.

Roger is inviting volunteer participants, from any person over 18 years of age, self-identifying as a White or Black/Asian/ Minority ethnic Christian who fits any of the following categories: anyone who has notexperienced symptoms of Covid-19, anyone who has knowingly been infected by the Covid-19 virus, anyone who is a hospital / care home staff member involved with treating the Covid-19 virus, and anyone who has been bereaved of a loved one by the Covid-19 virus.

If you are interested in taking part please make direct contact with Rev. Dr. Roger Abbott, , +44 7877933662 / (01509) 822701, or by post to 7 Blenheim Close, Loughborough, LE11 4SA.