Here we are sitting on our ball of confusion. Welcome to Babel Land. Mr. Gove thinks a walk of up to an hour is enough exercise for one day. He doesn’t strike me as a sporty type. The police may turn me back if I set the Audi on course for a neighbouring county. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The inhabitants of (variously) the Peak District, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland wish to repel all potentially Covid-19 bearing boarders, and who can blame them? If you’re on Kinder Scout at the wrong moment the rozzers may take a drone snapshot and stick it up on social media for the rest of the public to shame and abuse you.
Are we down-hearted? Well yes, we are rather. Is the advice offered consistent, or even well-argued? Well, maybe not, but the point is, consistent or even well-argued advice probably isn’t possible right now. We’re all improvising. Do we just give up, and wait to die? Well, of course not.
So if I can’t continue walking the labyrinth to Peterborough by ever more distant circles, the themes remain the same. We need each other more than ever. We have to explore and then reconcile our differences as Christians in a greater cause. We are the Body of Christ still, even in the face of the virus and closed churches. F.D.Maurice had the gist of it a hundred and seventy years ago. Who was F.D. Maurice? I’ll leave you to look him up, but he was quite a guy, for a theologian. He said his job was to dig, not build, which I rather like.
But I can still - for the moment - without using a car, walk the individual spokes of a wheel, out and back, from Weston Favell to neighbouring churches, and so today I go east towards Great Billing. My Big Walk first took me to St. Andrew’s church in May 2016. Great Billing like our own ‘village’ has an ancient centre surrounded by more modern housing. The walk is entirely suburban, but the church sits on a prominence with ‘Big House’ parkland falling away from it.
On the way there and back I’m passed by a hundred and one people (literally!) They are walking, cycling, jogging and in one case positively sprinting. Most are very well-behaved, apart from one morose geezer who can’t control his greyhound cross in the immediate vicinity of an understandably anxious woman with a baby in her arms. Then there are the kids splashing about noisily in Billing Brook, and four lads playing footie who don’t look particularly related to each other. Should I count as law-breakers the middle-class folk in a leafy close maintaining their two metres distance, but clearly having multi-neighboured social time? Probably. Calculating epidemiological risks is an imprecise science. We’re all taking our chances, more or less. I see more dogs in a limited time span than since last we were in Padstow and I encounter just two people wearing masks. On a Friday afternoon, it’s quieter than the most subdued Sunday, occasional distant blasts of Bhangra and Metal aside. The pathside woodland near St. Andrew’s has been coppiced. A contractor steadily mows the long stretches of grass by the church, blades sensibly high, in case of late frost or unexpected April heat. There are more people wandering the churchyard than I expect; parents doing some approximate home-schooling, looking at the inscriptions on the graves, enjoying the flowers and the quiet ambience. The notice affixed to St. Andrew’s door tells the world that the Church is alive and active, waving, not drowning. Are we?
Being a bloke, I’m only too aware that it’s men who are most susceptible to severe illness and death as a result of Covid. But I also notice in recent days that most if not all of those both taking risks with the virus and also projecting themselves in the faces of their fellow human beings e.g. by furious and noisy driving/biking - are also male. Is there a connection? Or is the presence of testosterone merely a spurious common factor between Covid mortality and manly strut? And how do I read this in the context of men a) frequently wishing to dominate as ‘leaders’ in a religious context (as they also do in many other public contexts) and b) being absent from ground-level contemporary Christian religious observance, where that faithfulness isn’t expressed in more enthusiastic, extrovert forms?
I stop by Billing’s cricket ground to mourn two amateur cricketers who this place conjures up. ‘Tot’ Manning was a sixth former when I was teaching at Northampton’s School for Boys in the seventies. He was generously built, and wielded (by the standards of those days) a heavy bat from which the ball was apt to depart with such rapidity that bowling slow-medium at him wasn’t a lot of fun. Tragically, ‘Tot’ died early in his college career, and ever since I hope he’s been terrifying close fielders on the heavenly cricket field. He was a protégé of Trevor Ford who captained the school’s staff cricket team back then, and whose funeral was conducted on-line this last week, as sadly many others will have been. Trevor was Yorkshire through and through, a purveyor of wily off breaks, delivered from almost a standstill because of arthritic knees. Both would have been surprised to find themselves mentioned in writings largely devoted to faith. Surprised, and in Trevor’s case at least, perhaps not entirely delighted.
Music and faith are intertwined at Billing. I may have previously mentioned that in 1577 Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, at that time riding high in Court circles, and having persuaded Elizabeth into granting them a monopoly on the printing of sheet music, also managed to obtain a lease on the Billing estate (and other land besides) for forty quid a year. It passed out of their hands not so long afterwards, but of course Tallis was dead by 1585, and Byrd was by then slipping out of favour for his Catholic inclinations. Elizabeth was not terribly amused by William’s churchmanship, but cut him more slack than she did for others.
Great Billing’s pub is the Elwes Arms, after the largely Catholic family who lived in the Hall. Gervase Elwes was a celebrated tenor at the turn of the nineteenth century, a mate of Percy Grainger, and a noted, pioneering exponent of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’. He died in a terrible railway accident in Boston, Massachusetts. Elgar said shortly afterwards: ‘My personal loss is greater than I can bear to think upon, but this is nothing – or I must call it so – compared to the general artistic loss – a gap impossible to fill – in the musical world.’
I was brought up on ‘The Dream’, a work that’s absolutely without comparison as far as I can see, vividly imaginative and frighteningly emotional. I’ve found it difficult to listen to ever since my early teenage years, and despite its lovely colours and melodies which are both tender and plangent by turns, I’d find it impossible right now.
Stat Man: Service temporarily suspended, but for the record: 13 deg C: sunny: 7 km.
With churches closed for the time being, many people are turning their minds to the maintenance of worship by other means. My small contribution to this is to provide a weekly ten minutes of audio – what we might have been doing/listening to in church on a particular Sunday if we’d been there. To find the various postings, please go to my website:
and click on the button ‘Ten on Sunday’ at the top of the site. This should take you straight to them. Alternatively, just scroll down until you see the pictures of a magnolia tree.