Revd. Ian Tattum

Funerals under Covid 19.

A short piece I wrote for a magazine in May.

In normal times funerals usually run like clockwork. Every hour a new set of mourners arrive. They come early, or last minute, and there are often the tail enders who smash the Cemetery speed limit in their desperation not to be late. They come alone or by the car load.    Greeting each other with hugs and words of sympathy. There is always laughter too and frequently a last chance for a calming fag or a dash to the loos before the hearse arrives. The crematorium staff lurk efficiently with hands behind their backs with the sardonic air of butlers.The minister or celebrant is there early and having prepared in their own private room, waits patiently at the door trying to balance friendliness with empathy. Then the funeral cortège arrives and an atmosphere of expectant dignity descends. A funeral director then bustles up, shakes a few hands, and surreptitiously passes a cheque in a envelope  to the minister as if paying a bribe.

The music starts and the coffin is led into the chapel and the mourners follow and file into the rows of seats.

But today was different. This was COVID 19 time. The car park was buried under a temporary mortuary. The previous funeral, the first of that morning, had  over run so the crematorium staff were already anxious about how they would manage the rest of the day- with double the usual amount of services to fit in. Even with a limit of only ten mourners per funeral all the available car parking was full that so that those coming for  the next funeral had to be held back at the cemetery gate.

Because of the mortuary there were security guards on that. They were heroically trying to be kind but they were unintentionally intimidating to the people held up at the entrance. Each mourner had arrived in their own car and far more than the ten allowed had come along, creating a snake of traffic stretching back to the supermarket roundabout which  blocked  the access for desperate shoppers.

There was no means of communication between the security guards and the crematorium staff, so we just had to wait. Eventually the people attending the first funeral were ushered out and those for the next took their place. First though there had to be a last gasp discussion of which of the 20 mourners could go into the chapel where they were to be socially distanced for the duration of the service. While the funeral director and the crematorium staff sorted that out the parakeets chatted in the trees as usual and I debated in my head how I was going to break the news to the grieving family that their one hymn had mysteriously dropped off the computerised music system. And how thirty minutes of music, eulogies and prayers could be squeezed into the 15 minutes of the allotted time that remained.

The rite was concluded with hand washing rather than hand shaking but shared

 goodwill, patience and the  solidarity of bewilderment just about saw us through.

Christian ethics. On wearing masks and being God’s holy people.

Reflection on Philippians.

A friend of mine once told me that I have a particularly powerful inner policeman.

I had never heard of that phrase before but I decided he had a point.

I think most of us probably have some version of this internal controller who arrests on the spot wayward   thoughts and expressions.

 I will give one fairly safe example of this. From a very young age I was a story teller- I spun dreams inside my own head- which I later came to share with my foster sisters in elaborate games of imagination.

To my father and most of my teachers this was all pointless daydreaming so I learnt to bolt the door on such impulses.

In addition to my inner policeman, I have now added an inner police car, with a very loud siren. Which is very valuable

I am sure living near the Merton Road has contributed to this.

But one way this works is whenever I find myself agreeing with Giles Fraser. The siren goes off shouting are you sure?

Because usually I find that at second glance I don’t.

Recently he wrote a piece about ethics in the time of Covid. It was interesting and made some very good points about how we as individuals and a community deal with it. Where he went wrong, I think, in a mistaken move made by many moral philosophers, is that there are different options for deciding what is right and wrong, a bit like choices on a menu.

There is a rules based system- when you simply follow internal or external rules.

‘Wear a mask.’  Don’t covert your neighbour’s ass.

Then there is a utilitarian system which operates on calculation.

In which your personal  behaviour should follow the principle of trying to find work out what action leads to the greatest good for the most people.

Wear a mask otherwise the R rate will rise, and many people will fall sick and die.

Giles seemed to be arguing that these strategies simply didn’t work, and we should embrace what is known as Virtue ethics, which is to develop the sort of character who will normally do the right thing.

Wear a mask because you are a good egg.

 Philosophically I am particularly drawn myself to  this last model- but I am well aware my inner policeman will be constantly nagging me to obey the rules.

Before I came to London one of my roles in the church was to mentor people training to be licensed readers, and they had to cover much of the same academic territory as people training to be ordained as priests , but without the support of university departments. So I had to help them think about ethics.

I can still remember working with a very conventional man who attended an evangelical church who told me that when it comes to morality it is absolutely simple, because it is all laid out in the Bible. God has given us a very clear rule book and he just follows what it says.

But when I got him to tell me not what his theory of ethics was but how he went about making moral decisions I watched it slowly dawn on him that he actually sometimes made calculations about the consequences of any possible action, he did try to be a good egg, and he would sometimes break the rules if context demanded it- not many can entirely resist the white lie.

Going back to my earlier analogy. If moral systems are items on the menu, we often like to sample more than one pudding.

Our reading this morning, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians has one of the best known and beautiful passages about the heart of Christian morality. It  has stuck with people as guide to being and living.

Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable., if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise.

Here I am going to differ with the translation we usually use.

It goes on’ think about these things’ but that sounds too much like a mental exercise. Other translations day ‘ ponder’ these things, or even ‘ do these things’… which actually link much better with what comes next. Which I have also  changed to avoid misconstrual of emphasis.

‘ Keep on doing those things that you have learned and received and heard in my me and via me, and the God of peace will be with you.’

This is not simple stuff. We really have to think about what St Paul means. Not because it is a puzzle but because it is demanding. St Paul himself, when discussing morality drew on the traditional rules from his Jewish inheritance, and cultural conventions, but also talked about an interior law- what developed to become the idea of conscience.

 Jesus always took traditional ideas about how to live and sought to deepen them and stretch the imagination and range of concern of the listener.

Like in the parable. Asking his disciples not to see themselves as entitled and honoured guests at a feast, but as unimportant people only getting an invite through the grace of God.

I have come a long way from where I began.

And am not sure I can easily tie things up.

Only to say that God made us imaginative, thinking and feeling creatures, who might be the sort of people who would say to themselves something like.

‘I wear a mask because I want to care for myself and my neighbour, it is a good and commendable rule, which I accept because of immediate and long term benefits. And because my health and that of others is of equal value in the eyes of God.’

Hildegard of Bingen- Mystic and musician.

Jane Austen hated the slave trade and dropped large hints in her novels to that effect. Emma is probably her second most famous novel, and in it she introduces the awful Mrs Elton whose voluble ignorance, insensitivity and vanity make her one of Austen’s  best comic creations. Emma Wodehouse’ disdain for her has usually been interpreted as being driven significantly by snobbery. The ex Miss Hawkins from Maple Grove having a family fortune of new money amassed from ‘Trade’. More recently the penny has dropped that this Trade was the slave trade.

Some people get very anxious when they think history is being re-written, but usually it is more accurate to say history is being re-discovered and restored.

Which brings me to St Hildegard of Bingen, who was born in 1098 and died in 1179, and who is remembered in the Church of England next Thursday. Who if old fashioned notions of history were always accurate would have no right to exist.

Because if you remember history lessons in school you will recall that the past was conventionally divided into periods beginning with the Classical world of Greece and Rome, followed by the Middle Ages, with a long sub section called the Dark Ages at the beginning, until the Modern World hoved into view at the end of the C15th, sometime around  the death of Richard the Third.

Those scholars who came up with those terms ‘dark’ and ‘ middle’ for a thousand year long stretch of time were making a critical judgement.

They saw civilization as being on pause between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance.

The so called revision of history is just that; a fresh look.

Hildegard is now seen as a remarkable Christian woman.

Here are just a few of her contributions to her own time and posterity.

She is best known for her musical compositions, created to accompany her own literary works, which have come to the attention of the musical world over the last 40 years- our friend June Boyce Tillman being one of her great advocates. They have since been recorded by hundreds of artists who have seen them as perfect and original examples of medieval religious music.

Her writings have rightly been called mystical visions. She read the bible and other religious writings in a way that involved her mind, body, memory and emotions. Much of their beauty from our modern viewpoint resides in the strangeness of this, who are more used to our religious reflections being straightforward and explanatory.

She put it this way herself.

I am not taught in this vision to write as the philosophers write, and the words in this vision are not like those which sound from the mouth of man, but like a trembling flame, or like a cloud stirred in the clear air.

Another reason that she has gained attention is because she has shed light on the role of women in an age when they were frequently silenced.

She was unknown and in her late forties , being abbess of a tiny convent attached to a monastery, when she wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the great and universally known figures in the mediaeval European church. She approached him humbly about her visions and religious writings, seeking advice as to whether she should even be producing them.

Just a few years later her wisdom was being sought by Popes and kings. In old age Hildegard was known for her preaching tours across the Rhineland. She was known and respected across  the whole continent. Scholars, inspired by her achievements have begun to notice that she was far from alone and that other holy women of great influence who had been overlooked by previous generations of scholars.

And finally some of her ideas have resonated with contemporary concerns about our disconnect from nature and creation. She was orthodox in her theology but because she was free and daring in her thought and imagination she found words to express truths which we, as Christians and humans, constantly need to rediscover.

She wrote of love as a life sustaining force, indwelling in everything.

In one of her visions Love speaks.

‘I am the fiery life of divine substance, I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in sun moon and, stars.’

But it is important to remember that Hildegard was in many ways not exceptional for her time. Most of her ideas were commonplace and expressive of the way that Christians thought and lived then. She wasn’t a person with a modern take on things trapped in a benighted past, but an original and gifted woman who absorbed and re-shaped what was around her.

And she helps to remind us that the so called Middle Ages were not an in-between time but a time when ground-breaking and inspirational religious expressions  occurred.

It is a whole other story, but it was the time of great achievements, such as the building of majestic cathedrals and the poetry of Dante, to stand alongside such movements as the crusades, with their trouble legacy. And for which St Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard’s illustrious correspondent, was a prominent advocate.

On Romans 12

August 23rd August.

What have the Romans ever done for us? The great question from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Rome was the capital of a great Empire. If famously exported road building and aqueduct construction with its armies as brought out by that famous joke.

St Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome nearly 30 years after Christ’s crucifixion, by which time the imperial power had spread its tentacles of conquest, as its enemies saw it, or Pax Romana, as its leaders spin  doctors called it even further ,across the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.

And yet is only now that St Paul turns, in the last letter he is known to have written, to the great capital.

And as the letter itself says he is only planning to stay for a short time before heading off west to Spain.

He is going for a stop over.

Towards the end of the letter he tells us that he is coming after undertaking an important and urgent case. He is going to go to Jerusalem to take money gathered on his travels to help the community there. The saints in Jerusalem.

I say all this because St Paul’s letter to the Romans needs putting in perspective. It is just about the longest of his letters, and although it was the last to be written it is the first we come across in the New Testament, and it has  undoubtedly had a huge effect upon the thinking of the church- it was particularly central to the debates of the Reformation, over the issue of faith versus works.

But, it is only one part of St Paul’s output, and a fraction of the New Testament. It is also, you might have noticed sometimes treated as a key to interpreting the Gospel. Many, including myself, would look first to the teaching and life of the  Christ we see in the Gospels themselves, but grant Paul an exalted role as an inspired interpreter and guide.

Romans 12. 1-8 provides a few great examples of this.

Christ spoke about taking up his cross and following Him. St Paul seems to be on the same page.

Beginning with an idea which we should all be familiar, even if we might find the words daunting or troubling-‘ be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’

From the Jerusalem Temple and right across the known world sacrifices were of animals, or plants.

There were dark references in the Old Testament to children being sacrificed and in the Graeco Roman world there were disturbing myths, like the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia by Agamemnon to get a fair wind to sail to Troy in the famous saga.

 From which atrocity unfurled the great cycles of revenge that became  the subject of so many Greek tragedies.

But this notion of not doing, or witnessing a sacrifice, but being a sacrifice was something new. An individual choosing to follow Christ by leading a life of self giving and love, internalised religion. Being a sacrifice opened the door to the practice  of charity, kindness, the development of conscience, and a  sense of personal agency and freedom. Especially when it is linked by Paul to renewing the mind.

 He uses the word metamorphosis at this point- like the amazing transformation that we associate with, caterpillars becoming butterflies.  I don’t think it is any coincidence that the letter to the Romans ends with Paul’s rescue mission to Jerusalem- to help the same people he had wanted to kill just a few years earlier.

Other verses in this section discuss the nature of the church and what it should be like.

I am going to quote from a book by an eminent evangelical biblical scholar at this point.

Diversity not uniformity, is the mark of God’s handiwork. It is so in nature ; it is so in grace too, and nowhere more so than in the Christian community.’

That might sound quite recent to your ears. It was written by FF Bruce just under 60 years ago.

The message of Romans echoes St Paul’s words elsewhere. God calls all kinds- ‘the scum of the earth,’ as he rather harshly calls believers, including himself, in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Elsewhere when Paul is celebrating diversity he mentions men, and women, Jew and Gentile, people who speak in tongues or prophesy but in Romans the list is slightly different again.

He includes, leaders, teachers, encouragers, generous givers, and people of compassion.

There seems little doubt that St Paul was running with a principle here, not drawing up arbitrary lists. Those who come belong, he insists. Those who belong have something to contribute.

 On a slightly flippant note I always regret that he hadn’t thought ahead to the invention of PCC’s, our Parochial Church Councils, and talked about the gift of cussedness, wandering off point, or total recall. All of which are, of course, sometimes invaluable, but where not, are only human.

Because another theme which St Paul brings out; something wise and precious which links the idea of being a living sacrifice and valuing enriching differences in others, is that we should not think more highly of ourselves that we ought to think. This connects with Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, about the humble being particularly blessed. Where the word that Jesus uses, usually translated humble or meek, is more subtle, combining tenderness and strength.

The gentle strong shall inherit the earth.

Diversity is ingrained into Christianity from the beginning. From that first ragbag of disciples, led by Peter, called by Jesus, through to St Paul, a transformed fundamentalist, down to us. Being welcomed through grace, and loved by God, not because of our special abilities, but because we are human beings in his image.

On honesty in prayer and the need for rest

Isaiah 56. 1, 6-8.

David was an unusual character at the theological college where I trained- Westcott House- in Cambridge. He told us his father was a Nigerian Prince, and his mother a Polish Poet.

I have never forgotten bumping into him after a lecture on the Bible. His face was the picture of concern and he  stroked his beard as he said.

‘ Ian, when I came here I thought there was a book called Isaiah, by the prophet Isaiah. I have now just been told, firstly that there actually two Isaiahs, and then at least 3- is this true?’

I explained sympathetically that it probably was and David continued to his room to recover from the shock.

The section we just heard is from the part that scholars have labelled Trito- Isaiah, because it marks the third obvious division in the text.

Broadly speaking the book of Isaiah is divided into a beginning bit written long before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC, over a century earlier when Judaea’s main enemies were the ferocious Assyrians, a central bit written when there was hope that those in exile in Babylon would soon return home, and the end bit written when the first exiles had just returned home and were setting about rebuilding their country. This last bit is about the events of 535 BC, when the Persians has destroyed the Babylonian Empire.

This is why it discusses the inclusion of foreigners in the religious life of the newly founded country. Those returning from exile had found strangers living in their city and Isaiah insists they are welcome to stay as long as they adopt the customs of the Jewish people, with particular emphasis on the sabbath.

One of the convictions that runs through the almost 200 year long tradition that is found in the book of Isaiah is that the whole world is God’s domain and business. Religion is often conflated with national boundaries and with or in rigid codes of behaviour and conformity. The Isaiahs constantly look for the bigger picture. God is the sovereign of all creation and all humanity. The challenges the people of Jerusalem faced then were parallel to those facing the people of Beirut today- how to rebuilt a home for all the peoples who inhabit it.

Two other features of Isaiah stand out to me as having particular relevance. Firstly that the marker Isaiah gives for being welcome is not adherence for every aspect of Jewish traditions- it says foreigners will be able to attend religious worship, not that they must, but above all they need to honour the sabbath.

Rest is almost a taboo in our society. We must always be industrious and achieving something. Sabbath then was to let lives, like the land lie fallow, to allow for regeneration. I am not the only person to think that there is great wisdom in modelling lives on a God to rested and a saviour who walked – who took time, not used or saved it.

And the final one is that Isaiah , like many of the most compelling bits of Scripture is poetry.

I deliberately didn’t say poetic, because that is too readily interpreted as a style or a form of flowery and decorative speech. Biblical poetry is rugged and in your face. This morning’s extract is one of the rare occasions when one of the Isaiahs lectures. But as there is currently controversy over schools no longer having to teach poetry to senior students it seems important to rejoice that the Bible too uses language not to impart useful  or marketable information but life changing insights.

As we shall be reminded in a moment, Jesus used stories and real human encounters to contrast our exhausted conventional ways of being with what God constantly invites us to.

This is what Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.

Why do we share bread and wine together?

Some reflections on the Eucharist

We are hoping to be able to celebrate the Eucharist together very soon but whenever that happens it won’t be a return to normality.

We can’t yet sing together or  share the peace.

We will not be able to share the cup together and we will need to wear masks.

We will need to keep our distance.

For many of us worshipping together is an intimate event. We are very conscious that we are coming together in the presence of God to make space for Him at the centre of our lives, through prayer, singing and sharing bread and wine.

All of that has had to drop away over the last few months and we don’t actually know when it will be restored.

But today I want to share some thoughts about the importance of the Eucharist to us, how it’s absence might have affected us, and how we might all engage with it in this new era.

This Sunday’s readings have made this timely.

The first reading, from Isaiah 55, is a description of a great banquet provided by God for his people.

The Gospel , from Matthew, is the great story of the feeding of the 5 thousand.

Two acts of overflowing divine generosity which are nourishing to the body and inspiring to the soul.

Now just contrast that with what we habitually have done together on a Sunday morning.

And the desert we have been through over the last months and the future.

It is worth throwing in a reminder of the story from Exodus of God feeding his people with manna in the wilderness, which seems a particularly pertinent example of divine generosity.

I have always been fascinated by the medieval legends of the Holy Grail.

Do just put memories of Monty Python, Dan Brown, or Indiana Jones to one side for a moment.

In the earliest legends the Holy Grail was not a chalice but a dish. And it was imagined to be the dish of sharing that Jesus had used in the Last Supper, and just like in Isaiah and The feeding of the 5 thousand it was a mysterious source of food.

I am going to pause there before I continue.

I would like you to just think for a moment about what you miss most about not meeting together for the Eucharist.

And what it means to you.

During lockdown I have been very struck by the similarity between on line church and the church in the Middle Ages.

There were long periods of time when priests celebrated communion, virtually in privacy , behind a screen in church and those members of the parish who actually attended simply watched and listened from their seats. They very rarely participated in anyway and the highlight of the service for them was the point when the priest held up the holy sacrament in a sacred vessel for them to gaze upon.

You can find stained glass windows and paintings depicting this, with rays of divine light shining out from the holy sacrament into the eyes and souls of the worshipper.

So we have been where we are now before but not due to a health crisis but a mindset which elevated the role of the priest and disembodied,spiritualised the receiving of holy communion.

But as people have said to me this non physical, humanly separated, way of participating in the Eucharist has still at times been inspiring and of significance. And we find in the Grail legends that even a glimpse into the mysterious dish could be worth a lifetime of searching.

But this , I know, is very far from the experience of others. We yearn to be together. It was a movement in the Protestant churches lasting centuries which finally achieved the goal of people , apart from priests, being able to receive the bread and wine regularly, and to be involved in other ways, such as leading the prayers, giving the wine etc.

I really get annoyed by priests who talk about ‘ My Church’. It is always ours!

And the truth is that despite the attempts of some church thinkers to insist that they have the key to understanding the meaning of the Eucharist,and that those who think otherwise are somewhere on an arc between being misguided and heretical, I would make the more modest suggestion that it is a ritual that has evolved based on the teaching and practice of Jesus, into a huge variety of traditions, which continues to mean different things to different people.

And that that is not a bad thing.

But before finishing I want to return to where I started. With he  Holy Grail and God’s overflowing generosity as hymned by Isaiah and acted out by Christ in the feeding of the 5 thousand.

Whereas we often assume the Last Supper to be the foundation moment of the Eucharist. Christ’s command to break bread and drink wine in memory of Him.

This can divert our attention from how His taking of food and blessing it and sharing it pops up before that. It is exactly what happens in the Feeding of the 5 thousand.

Even if we do wish to focus on the Last Supper, it is interesting how traditionally more attention has been paid to the comestibles  themselves than what is done with them. The bread is shared, and the wine is shared.

One loaf is broken and shared out equally. The lips of everyone present touch the same cup, as it is

handed round.

I very recently discovered that there was a centuries long tradition in some churches of sharing water not wine. The point seeming to be again that it was the sharing of the cup that was most fundamental , not what was in it.

One of the criticisms that has been made of the Church of England is that it too readily abandoned public  worship for the sake of public health. Sometimes there is a grudging admission thrown in , that it has helped to provide food banks, which are seen as a very poor substitute.

At St Barnabas we too have done this, and I am very grateful to the members of this congregation and the wider community who have supported this. We are providing food for hungry young  families all through the school holidays.

Perhaps if we remember the abundant generosity of God and the centrality of sharing which is at the root and heart of a Eucharist we will see how appropriate that is.

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