Blue Sky Thinking

This weekend the churches in UK will remain closed.  The tradition of congregating for an Easter Sunday Service will not happen.  

Now I have no particular axe to grind, but something so earth-shattering that it hasn’t happened since the twelfth Century shouldn’t pass unnoticed.

The reason, of course, is COVID-19, and it makes perfect sense.  Congregations tend to draw their numbers from the age group still reckoned to be most vulnerable to serious attack from this virus, those for whom social distancing is particularly important.

Canterbury Cathedral

Closure of buildings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York assure us, does not diminish the significance of the Easter weekend.   The church is inside those who believe, the worshippers, rather than the shelter within which they worship.  Communications have rather improved since the 12th Century, and the church is able to come to its congregation on-line.  

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will lead the Easter Morning Service from his London home.  It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four, and available live from the Church of England’s website:

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/church-online

This is more portentous than a mere historical milestone.  It is a chance for the church to measure the response of its parishioners, because I am prepared to bet the Archbishop’s audience will far exceed the average 1500 who attend his cathedral.  Why?  Well, not because an act of prayer from one’s own home takes less ‘effort’, but because it is more accessible to those conscience would be pricked by the pollution of a journey and the fear of infection.

If any good is to come out of this benighted little bug that besets us, it is in the chances it offers to re-think many outdated concepts.  Up and down the land more businesses are learning new ways of working that do not involve the daily trek to an office; more retail groups and sole traders are using the enforced leisure to improve their presence online, more fatted calves of the communications industry are reassessing their schedules, and we ourselves are discovering a renewed blueness to the sky.  The air is fresher, sunrises can once again be seen from the cities.  The whole world is taking a very deep breath.

And no, the church does not escape.  As its ancient buildings get older, they become increasingly frail, while the cost of their maintenance escalates.  Their congregations dwindle.  Yes, group worship in a full church is an uplifting experience, but the sad truth is cold stone and empty echoes in chambers where the dead outnumber the living.  As the priesthood gets older, fewer young people seem eager to study theology.  You can’t get the staff nowadays!

So why not take the message of Coronavirus to heart?  Why not redirect the vast resources devoted to renovating old gargoyles or replacing lead on roofs to helping the poor and the disadvantaged?  Keep the few great cathedrals, yes, but why not subsidize housing on the rest of the church’s estates to provide homes for those just starting out in life, or those with special needs?

Every act which benefits the lives of others is a prayer.  Isn’t that the true measure of belief?   Isn’t that what a church should be for?

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Correction of a House

For those who missed it, Shepton Mallet prison closed last week.  

As a child of Somerset, I have distant memories of Shepton Mallet, and the prison (no, I wasn’t an inmate) is among those vague recollections, squatting in the midst of civilised town buildings like a somnolent slug.

High perimeter walls – 75ft is high – grey stone, tiny peeping windows with those tell-tale bars: I’d like to think that someone with vision would re-open it as a themed hotel, but I’m told they’re going to pull it down.

There won’t be many arguments, I imagine, in favour of its preservation.  No outraged ImageNational Trust junkies will barricade the doors or lie down in front of the bulldozers – no, this is the less desirable face of history; a side of society we would prefer to forget.

Built in 1610, it’s certainly a candidate for preservation. It offered accommodation to many famous ‘lifers’ not least among which were the brothers Kray.  And I believe the ghosts (I’m told there are several) would like to see their nameless memories preserved.  So many of them, victims of the almost continuous ravages of smallpox and the brutality that reigned within its walls, lie buried there; their graves unmarked by any stone.

How many were hanged at HMP Shepton Mallet? No-one really knows – in early years no records were kept.  In World War Two, however, it was a military prison. Sixteen American soldiers were hanged and two shot for crimes including rape and murder.

So no tears but those which the men, women and children who suffered the continuous torture of years within those cramped cells have shed, and still perhaps run bleeding among the stones.  And maybe in the other silences  the creak of the treadmill that once turned there might still be heard, when Shepton Mallet needs reminding of those darker hours.