by The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson
The Prime Minister has warned us that this year we may be facing the loss of 3,000 elderly people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus. The Churches are closing down. That symbolism is pretty daunting. I imagine that all over the world there are people for whom this is the last straw in their struggle to hold onto their Christian faith. What has the Church to say to them in this traumatic situation? What has God to say? Nothing, apparently.
This question has been asked many thousands of times. Our own local tragedies are just one more item in the endless annals of grief of our human race. Thousands of men and women have lost their faith as repeated tsunamis of disaster have swept over the human community.
In 1755 on Easter morning an earthquake wrecked the city of Lisbon. The Cathedral was packed to the doors. No one survived. Over 100,000 people perished on that day. The surviving priests set up makeshift altars among the ruins but couldn’t say anything. They just did the Mass. More people died of Spanish flu in 1919-1921 than were killed in WWI. The churches remained full. More than one third of the population of Europe died in the Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of plague. Six million men women and children died in the Holocaust, millions more in the Russian and Chinese revolutions. The personal poignancy of these massive disasters is painfully brought home to any visitor to Pompeii, where you can see the poignant plaster forms of hundreds of men women and children and their pets vividly preserved in rigor mortis by volcanic ash. Many visitors are reduced to tears. Death stalks our streets every day but we generally manage to draw a discreet curtain round the death bed and avoid meeting the bereaved because we don’t know what to say.
The strange thing is that many of us still cannot stop asking that agonised “Why?”
Who is that protest addressed to? As a priest I have officiated at hundreds of funerals, and the bereaved have often turned to me with real anger, rather as stranded passengers turn on the nearest uniformed official to account for the delay of a plane that has broken down in the USA. What can I say? “Sorry, all flights cancelled”? People feel they are being unjustly punished by a cruel God. Why?
As long as these disasters are comfortably in the past or half a world away we can evade that immediate agonising “Why”? It hits us in the solar plexus when it is on our TV screens or on our own doorstep and among our nearest and dearest – 3,000 grannies and grandpas. All down the centuries the same agonised questioning has constantly confronted the Church. Anything we try to say sounds glib and cheap. All we can do as an act of despairing faith is to go on praying the Lord’s Prayer and sharing Christ’s bread and wine among the ruins. Our silent presence is better than empty words of hollow optimism.
Why is it that I, and millions of devout Christian men and women, still manage to hang onto such a shaky faith? For ten years I worked in the shadow of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. From my office window I could look across to the mediaeval sandstone altar which was miraculously undamaged after the raid in 1941 which killed 20,000 people. On it there stands a roughly contrived cross made by wiring together three of the wrought iron nails from the burning timbers of the roof. On the morning after the raid the Dean had picked them up among the still-smoking rubble. With a piece of charcoal he wrote on the wall, “Father Forgive”. Those were the first words Jesus spoke as he was nailed to the Cross.
If we want to hear a word from God, surely that is where we will find it. And so we do. The last word Jesus spoke from the Cross is this: “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?”
Of all the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, this is the one that is indisputably authentic. We feel reassured when we hear him praying for his executioners. That is the kind of thing we would like the Son of God to say. But that this lovely man, who we believe to be the human face of God, should die in despair because in the end nothing makes sense, is beyond our understanding.
Many people who are going to die in the present pandemic are going to die miserably and in despair and probably alone. But I believe our utter despair now has a different face, because Jesus has shown us that he wears our face and has been here too! He walked through life with his hand in his Father’s hand going wherever Love called him. In the end Love called him to Calvary, and there all alone he fell into the pit of our bottomless despair. But even there he still cried out to his Abba Father, “Why?” His Abba Father responded on Easter morning: now there is a door out from the far end of the tomb of despair. That is the answer that Love gives to our agonised “Why”. Not a word but a deed. “Christ is risen!”
All down the Christian centuries there have been Christians who have walked into the darkest places of this world with their hand in the hand of Jesus Christ just for love of him or for love of humanity. They didn’t have any answers for the angry questionings of humanity apart from their own loving presence in the dark. When I was a young curate I once met a woman whose only boy had been killed in a road accident. She told me that her Vicar had been a wonderful help to her. Being new to the job, I asked her what it was her Vicar had said? ‘Oh he didn’t say anything. He just sat and held my hand and wept with me saying over and over again, “O that lovely boy, that lovely boy!”’ Later she became a carer looking after special needs children. Alongside the ruins of Coventry Cathedral there now stands the splendid New Cathedral which has become a Cross of Nails Centre for reconciliation all over the world. Hundreds of men who had fought in the trenches went on the be ordained. Our faith is that in the end there is a Cosmic Love that “makes all things well”. Those are the words which Lady Julian of Norwich heard from the lips of the dying Christ.
It may take many millennia, but Love has the last word. “All shall be well.”
“I make all things new!”
The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson was Dean of Salisbury Cathedral from 1986 until his retirement in 1996. Through his leadership and vision, governors and trustees founded Sarum College in 1995, a year after the closure of Salisbury & Wells Theological College. The photo of Hugh was taken during his address to mark Sarum College’s 20th Anniversary in September 2015 (ashmills.com).
This piece was first printed in Hugh’s local parish magazine.