WRITING this column after my diary has been emptied is a challenge. Encounters with other people usually provide much of the material. But there have been new experiences to navigate during lockdown.
My wife, Julie, and I have been together — and on our own — more in the past seven weeks than at any time in 42 years of marriage. I’m glad to report that we have rather enjoyed it. New routines include the Offices, and an almost daily eucharist around the kitchen table. Various guest preachers have entered our home without adding to the carbon footprint. Particular thanks go to the Dean of Canterbury, Colin Heber Percy, and my former chaplain Canon Susanna Gunner, among many others.
I wonder whether Covid-19 will help us to recover Christianity as a religion of the home. I’ve sometimes envied the natural way in which Jewish friends link home and faith, especially around the meal table. Jews have had hardly any choice in much of their history. Now we, too, have little choice. Perhaps we can make this last.
Not going green
OUR garden now has scarcely a weed in it (others fortunate enough to have a garden will empathise). It’s been a blessing that the lockdown has come at a time when nature is bursting with new life and colour
I have never regarded gardening as a mystical experience, although I cannot do it without thinking of Dorothy Frances Gurney, who tells us we are “nearer God’s Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on Earth”. My father loathed her poem. When I was born, he was a Congregationalist minister. He said that, in the 1950s, that poem was cited more frequently than anything else as an excuse for not going to church. He believed that Gurney single-handedly did more than any other person to unchurch the English.
At the time, her poem probably provided convenient cover for a lingering social embarrassment about not going to church. Now, people are far more likely to be embarrassed to admit to being regular churchgoers. This may explain why online congregations are so much larger than “real” ones — that, and the convenience, of course; and the fact that you can mute the preacher.
Earth to earth
I HAVE recently received two copies of Gurney’s poem in my inbox, as part of a poetry exchange — a way of sharing poems during this unusual period. This has made me reassess it. After all, the Bible begins with a vision of a beautiful garden. It’s messed up by human beings. The prophets taught that the restoration of the garden was the final purpose of history;so it is no surprise that the resurrection was discovered in a garden.
Gurney was steeped in the scriptures, and came from a very clerical family. Her father served as Rector of St Andrew Undershaft, in London; and her grandfather was Charles Blomfield, the great reforming bishop of that diocese. Gurney herself married a priest. “God’s Garden” was written just before the First World War began.
The experience of war reshaped her theology. I doubt she would have had much patience with the later pantheist tendency; for she and her husband both became Roman Catholics in 1919.
Channels of peace
I EXPECT today’s 75th anniversary of VE Day may trigger fresh comparisons between wartime and what’s happening to us now. The diary entries of servicemen at the time record a huge, if sometimes subdued, sigh of relief.
Harold Macmillan was in Italy, where he was virtually running the country — good practice for a future Prime Minister. On VE Day, he was in Assisi, and he noted in his diary that “with all his power of evil, his strength and his boasting, Hitler lasted just twelve years.” By contrast, he observed, “St Francis did not seem to have much power, but here in this lovely place one realises the immense strength and permanence of goodness — a rather comforting thought.”
I think Macmillan would have approved of Jorge Bergoglio’s choice of papal name.
ON THE shores of the Sea of Galilee on VE Day was a young Anthony Wedgwood Benn (as he was at the time). He was with a group of other RAF officers, in a kibbutz. The leader of the settlement made a short speech, and then glasses were filled for a toast.
Teetotal even as a young man, Benn asked for an orange squash. He once said that he had been “born in the pure milk of undiluted Congregationalism”; so that may account for it. An older resident of the kibbutz did not think squash suitable for such a celebration, and poured half a cupful of wine into it. In his diary, Tony Benn wrote: “I drank it up — it was practically communion wine, and I thought it rather an appropriate beverage with which to celebrate peace.”
Those are good words on this VE Day anniversary, when so many of us cannot receive communion together — a deprivation for which even Zoom cannot compensate.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.