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Angela Tilby: Moments of liberation in a bleak year

31 December 2021

Facebook/Portsmouth Cathedral

Choristers and members of the congregation of Portsmouth Cathedral sing the last hymn of the Sunday Eucharist outside, on 25 April. The congregation had sung its first hymn since lockdown outside the cathedral’s west doors, on Easter morning, three weeks earlier

Choristers and members of the congregation of Portsmouth Cathedral sing the last hymn of the Sunday Eucharist outside, on 25 April. The congregation h...

A NEW year comes with hope and trepidation, as it did last year, and as it no doubt will in a year’s time. The cards and messages that I received at Christmas reflected the insecurities of the pandemic, the brief, snatched holidays, the anxieties of separations, the expected and unexpected deaths.

In spite of the strains, for many of us 2021 was better than 2020. Some expected things actually happened — although, as I looked back through my diary, there were plenty of cancellations, Zoom appointments, and unexpected question marks.

Yet there were also moments of liberation. Singing our first congregational hymn outside the west doors of Portsmouth Cathedral on Easter morning. There were tears, if not (yet) hugs. The first delicious sip of ice-cold lager on a freezing April day when the pubs reopened. A brief holiday in Jersey with 48 hours of genuine warm sunshine, even if masks had to be worn on the way to the swimming pool. When “Freedom Day” came on 19 July, it brought a lurking anxiety: would we survive without the familiar restrictions?

If our private worlds swung between fear and hope, the rest of the world was bleak. Violence in Washington, Covid devastation in India, the grim betrayal of Afghanistan, the watering down of climate-change commitments in Glasgow. Meanwhile, the C of E indulged its Boris-like dream of 20,000 new worshipping communities, alongside plans to close churches and sack clergy. We are clearly just the wrong sort of Church for our leadership, who perhaps harbour the suspicion that all would be well if if only the current clergy and laity could be replaced by better ones.

My two strongest memories of 2021 are the Queen at Prince Philip’s funeral, dignified, heroic, alone (News, 23 April). She is perhaps the last genuine Christian leader we have.

The second memory comes from another funeral. At the end of January, my half-brother died unexpectedly in circumstances that, in spite of an inquest, were never quite clear. It was a huge shock. I took his graveside funeral in Hampstead cemetery. He was buried in the grave of his mother, who died shortly after his birth. There were five family members present, three friends, and a neighbour. It was a grey day, but birdsong and blossom were breaking through. It was good to read the 23rd Psalm, to be reminded, even in the valley of the shadow of death, of our sure and certain hope.

As we start a new year, I pray that a frivolous government and an anxious Church may remember that we are, indeed, dust and ashes. And it is because of, and not in spite of, this hard fact that we have a lifelong duty to worship God and love our neighbour. In our vale of tears, this is much more important than tinselly aspirations and trying to feel good about ourselves.

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