THE Archbishop of Canterbury has been making one of his lightning visits to a diocese, and this time it is ours. Lest any corner of the county should feel left out, he has been touching down from north to south, east to west, with a substantial stay in the city of Derby.
He has dropped in on several churches and church projects, including schools, foodbanks, advice centres, meeting places for refugees and asylum-seekers, and many others. The Archbishop gave a public tribute to the tireless work of our own Bishop on behalf of the victims of people-trafficking and modern slavery.
Repeating the initiative of Archbishop Williams when he visited the diocese, Archbishop Welby also paid a short visit to our convent, accompanied by our Bishop, Dr Alastair Redfern, for matins and coffee. It was good for us to have this opportunity to meet the Archbishop informally.
The two distinguished visitors commented, as visitors usually do, about the peaceful atmosphere. As we usually do, we said how pleased we were that they found it so, while murmuring under our breath, “You want to try living here.”
THE Derby Bach Choir, in which it is my delight to sing, is rehearsing Handel’s Israel in Egypt for a concert in July. I had long been familiar with the name of this work, but, as we began to study it, I realised that not only had I never sung it before: I had not even heard it. What a wonderful experience it has been to discover this unfamiliar marvel.
In the early sections of the work, Handel depicts the plagues of Egypt with graphic detail, and even with humour — although it cannot have been very entertaining to experience them. Before long, though, we are in the dramatic heart of the story: the crossing of the Red Sea, and the drowning of the Egyptians. Having reached this event, we stay with it for a long time, milking the drama for all its worth. “The horse and its rider hath he thrown into the sea,” we sing exultantly, repeatedly, and in eight parts.
Enjoying it so much does give me some qualms. Ought we to be so gleeful about the massacre of so many people and animals? But there is no doubt that the Passover, with its theme of liberation, is central to the Christian faith. The narrative, and this very song of triumph, form an obligatory reading at the Easter vigil, and cause Sisters uneasiness every time.
All God’s children
WHEN Christians quote verses from the Qur’an to demonstrate that Islam is an inherently violent religion, I wonder how carefully, and critically, they have read our own Bible.
It is not just our problem, of course: Jewish scholars have wrestled for centuries with the task of reconciling the bloodthirsty passages in the scriptures with the ethical principles of their own faith — derived, of course, from other strands in the same scriptures, and from centuries of walking with God.
One piece of Jewish commentary which I greatly value — I do not know its source, but perhaps someone else does — recounts that, after the destruction of the Egyptians, the angels began this very song, only for God to stop them, saying: “How can you sing for joy, when my children the Egyptians are perishing?”
IN THE course of a pilgrimage, some years ago, we paused at a vantage point to look over Jericho. The young male fellow-curate who was leading the worship at that spot read the account of the trumpets and the falling walls, and recalled how thrilled and overjoyed he had been as a child to hear this story.
I was remembering how horrified I had been as a child to hear it, and still was, as we stood there in Israel, since I knew that it was followed by the account of the Israelites’ conquest of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants.
We spend a good part of each day saying the psalms together, and so we are continually faced with this problem. Some of them are vengeful, bloodthirsty, or insufferably self-righteous. We have decided to omit some of the worst examples, but we still have the uneasy awareness that they are there in the body of scripture, and we have to decide how to cope with them.
The daily eucharistic lectionary has recently been presenting us with some challenging passages, too. On the morning after Jo Cox’s murder, the appointed reading was the account of hacking to death of the wicked queen Athaliah in the street by order of the High Priest.
The designated reader refused to read that passage that day, and I could not blame her. But would it have been any more tolerable on any other day?
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.