Category Archives: Meditations

JUNE 6 2020 – PHILOSOPHICAL AND THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS – 1: “CLOSED CHURCHES AND SILENT BELLS”

church-closed

WG73

CLOSING CHURCHES

Our Finest hour?

 I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

The Battle of Britain and “the blitz” were campaigns (although viewed as one single offensive by the Nazis) that Sir Winston Churchill knew were more than simply about a conflict between two nations. During the Second World War we fought an ideology, and seventy five years’ ago Churchill spoke from the Ministry of Health balcony to a vast crowd (an ironic location seventy five years on):

The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it”.

One such bomb came down close to St John’s Church, Kensal Green on November 16th 1940 blowing out most of the stained glass in the church and causing severe damage to the roof. In 1944 the church celebrated its centenary. Fr Tipper, Vicar during the war years, recalled many years later the moment he entered his bombed church: “I went into the church with a working man. He was crying and I was too. He said ‘cheer up Father. We’ll build it up again’ and we have done that”. In March at the last assembly in church before schools closed I told the pupils about Fr Tipper He was proud that not one service was cancelled following the bombing, even with a part of the roof blown off and the glass blown out, and as bombs still fell.

Seventy five years after VE Day is a good day to reflect on how much we have changed. Could London “take it” today if bombs came down again? Our risk averse, micro-managed, centralized, committee loving and tick boxing culture – in every area of life – makes the answer uncertain. We should remember, however – as any who has seen darkest hour will know – that had there been no Churchill there may have well been no victory. However much we have changed we are the same nation, as Her Majesty recently said: “the pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future”.  I saw a war time poster recently advising people if they were gassed: wash your hands and go to work. Clearly one thing has changed is the notion of risk.

A renewal

What, I have wondered in recent weeks, would Fr Tipper, let alone Churchill, make of the Church today? In August 1944 Geoffrey Fisher, the then Bishop of London, wrote to Tipper a letter congratulating the church on celebrating its centenary “in the throes of a new period of human history”:

Let this Centenary renew your faith in the unchanging things – God’s love, our redemption in Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the duty to bear our faithful witness. For these things your church stands. There, through the ministry of word and sacrament, there in the unity of the Church’s prayer and worship, you are fortified in the grace of God”.

I think Fr Tipper would have found it incomprehensible that a church could be closed, and even more incomprehensible that Geoffrey Fisher would “advise” him to do so. Tipper had served in the first war and knew about both risk and the law, not simply as rules in a book, but as the rule of love that is summarised in Fisher’s letter above.

The Worship of God is a response to His love and a commandment. The celebration together of the Eucharist on the day we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection is a command not a choice; how we bear witness to Christ, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the Church’s prayer – all spring from the story of redemption. St Paul notes the law often: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5, 22). We live under the law, but the law is only as strong as that which it is based upon and inspired by.

Better Days

It would seem strange to Fr Tipper that Clergy would willingly deny themselves the ability to care so they could stand in solidarity with those at home. In the war he was known for visiting people whose homes had been bombed and many years later upon his retirement it was for this, rather than anything he might have ever preached, that he was remembered. A visit, a word of support, doing what a parish priest has always done.

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge” said The Queen in that memorable address “and those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any”. As footage showed key workers, shop keepers, delivery drivers, nurses, soldiers, and postmen, how good it would have been to see a priest. I cannot describe the profound anger I felt as I feared an aunt might die in hospital , when the Archbishop designate of York suggested clergy should not volunteer to go into hospitals. I cannot comprehend how risk, symbolised by the cross, became something that so overpowering.

Of course prior to this episode relations between clergy and bishops were not ideal. There can be a tension between the needs of a parish and of a diocese. No parish is alike and serving parishes can become a never ending puzzle as to how we can sustain a parochial system with less resources. The more recent addition of national Church institutions adds another layer of complexity. Interestingly Geoffrey Fisher, he of the above letter, was the last to oversee a revision of the Canons, to fit a Church for a new world. He knew put the rules in first and everyone knows what they are doing (he had of course been a Head Master).

Fr Tipper lived in a less complex culture and four years after the war his glebe was purchased by Paddington Borough for housing – it was where the bomb landed. Today three blocks of flats stand on it. His Vicarage is now sold. We should not of course look back to a past generation and be wistful but we can ask the question whether what we think people want is the same thing as the pastoral care they are given. Where people know whom as well as what to turn to relationships are easier, as well of course as the place to visit. In recent weeks I am sure people have been aware of their parish church, and that it has been locked might make people cherish it the more. Might they too become a bit more involved with its life? A little more assertive of what they might attend? It might be a little too traditional for some but if we are to serve the nation a good start would be to listen, and start at the base.

These past weeks have renewed my faith in the unchanging things: God’s love, our redemption in Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the duty to bear our faithful witness. Like many these past weeks have also taken my mind back to my youth and the church of my youth. The Church of England can be what it once was, with confident clergy in their parishes secure in the knowledge of their roles supported by pastors of all churchmanships, working alongside laity clear in their responsibilities, supported by a diocese that is vital in so many areas. It would be a tragedy if business as usual resumed, there is required now a middle way which is after all a very Anglican way to go.

Her Majesty’s address to the nation was a voice of sanity amidst the fear and confusion. “While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. Better days will return”. Better days will return and perhaps as we see young people demonstrating against racism in large numbers they have woken up to what previous generations knew. Yes a virus is a risk, but discrimination and not listened to is worse for the vast majority. May they, like Fr Tipper, surveying the many mistakes of a risk averse culture build things up again, and for the better.

David Ackerman

Kensal Green, June 2020