Archive for the ‘Lent’ Tag

Mothering/ Refreshment Sunday (fourth in Lent, 6 March, 2016)   Leave a comment

Simnel cake

Simnel cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,

‘Gainst thou go a-Mothering,

So that when she blesseth thee

Half the blessing thou’ll give me.

ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674)

Living in Hungary, I’m often asked why we celebrate Mother’s Day in Britain on a different date from most of Europe. I answer that we don’t celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’, we celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday‘, in which human motherhood is just one aspect.

With Lent half gone, the Church allows a break from fasting, a ‘breakfast’ or ‘refreshment’. The Gospel for the day tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand and so, appropriately, the day became known as Refreshment Sunday. In the early Church, there was a special ordinance requiring the priest and people to visit the ‘Mother church‘ of the district on this day, and this custom became associated with pleasant gatherings of families and reunions of children with mothers. Hence the popular name, ‘Mothering Sunday’.

DSC06206By the 17th Century it became common practice for serving maids and apprentices to be given a holiday on this day so they might visit their mothers. In those days, they left their homes at the age of nine or ten, then living in accommodation provided by their masters. Mothering Sunday would be the only day in the year on which they would see their families and keep up their links with home. They took gifts of flowers or special cakes made for the occasion.

These cakes were spicy and made with a fine flour which had a Latin name, ‘simila’, hence the cakes were known as Simnel cakes. These are sometimes decorated with little fruits, artificial flowers with eggs and nests – looking forward to the great festival of Easter.

The picture on the right above, shows our Oliver presenting his mum with Spring flowers in church, a tradition which is repeated in many parish churches and chapels throughout the UK. So we celebrate motherhood in the form of our human mother, the mother church and the ‘motherhood’ of God which, unlike our human mothers, but like ‘agape’, ‘has no end’.

So, all this has little to do with Mother’s Day, which is a North American institution. On 9 May 1906, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia lost her mother and succeeded in persuading the state governors to proclaim the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.

In Pennsylvania it became a state holiday, and other states followed suit until in 1913 the US Senate and House of Representatives dedicated the day to mothers. It is therefore, by definition, not a religious festival, and never has been. When the ‘Yanks’ came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, they brought these traditions with them, hence the reason that ‘Mothering Sunday’ has turned into a secular ‘Mother’s Day’ for many in Britain.

Refreshment Sunday: The Feeding of the Five Thousand   1 comment

 Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men

(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):

When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.

That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. 

English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves o...
English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)

The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:

The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.

Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.

‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’

The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.

Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.

As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general. 

He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans. 

It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.

Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.

Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of ...
Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.

There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.

We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.

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Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.

Ash Wednesday, 13th February: ‘Dust to dust…’   Leave a comment

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, meaning ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-

 

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 c...

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 cm (detail) Polski: Popielec, akwarela, karton, 78 x 113 cm (frag.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

 

Lent

Lent (Photo credit: jezobeljones)

 

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

 

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

 

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantageous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day

 

English: Acolytes extinguishing candles after ...

English: Acolytes extinguishing candles after an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormandizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May.

 

 

Shrove Tuesday   1 comment

pancake day

pancake day (Photo credit: twelves)

The 12th February this year is ‘Shrove Tuesday‘. It can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

English: The High Street, Olney, Bucks (Milton...

English: The High Street, Olney, Bucks (Milton Keynes) This pleasant small market town comes alive on Shrove Tuesday when various pancake races take place. When the fun is over there is a Service of Thanksgiving in the parish church when ‘Olney Hymns’ are sung, their authors Newton and Cowper being associated with the town. The most famous of them is Amazing Grace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women over 18 who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner receives the dubious honour of being kissed by the verger as well as a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

More about rending garments on Ash Wednesday

Growing up & finding God’s way: Shrovetide to Mothering (‘Refreshment’) Sunday   Leave a comment

This is based on Reflections for Lent I gave at our ‘Home Sunday School‘ as international teachers in Pécs, Hungary, in the 1990’s.

Sentences: 

Jesus said: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

Train yourselves in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Prayer:

O Lord God, who knowest that we have many temptations to conquer, many evils to shun, many difficulties to overcome, and as many opportunities of good: so order our doings that we observe in all things the perfect rule of Christ, and set ourselves to serve thee first, others next, and ourselves last; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Reading from ‘Portrait of Jesus’ by Alan T Dale

Jesus went away from Jordan River, his heart filled with God’s Spirit. And God led him out on to the lonely moorlands. He was there many a long day. He was being tested; he had to think things out; what did God want him to do? All this time he had nothing to eat, and at the end he was very hungry indeed. 

This coversation took place in his mind: Jesus imagined himself to be sometimes on the moorlands themselves, sometimes on the top of a very high mountain, sometimes standing on the top of the Temple Gate in Jerusalem.

On the moorlands:

Voice: If you are God’s Son, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.

Jesus: The Bible says: Bread is not the only thing a man needs to live on.

On the top of a very high mountain, where he could see so far that all the world seemed to lie at his feet:

Voice: I will give you all the power of these great countries and their royal splendour. It is all mine – mine to give to anybody I want to. It can all be yours – on one condition; you must take me for your King – not God.

Jesus: The Bible says: God himself must be your King; you must be his servant and his servant only.

Jerusalem, on the top of the Temple Gate, looking down on all the people gathered in the Court below:

Voice: If you are God’s Son jump down from this high place. The Bible says: God will command his angels to look after you.

And again the Bible says: Their hands will hold you fast – you won’t even stub your toe on a stone.

Jesus: The Bible also says: You must not put God to the test.

The testing time of Jesus was over – but it was not the last test he had to face.

He had long thought about what kind of leader God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ would be….Now he knew that to be ‘the leader of his people’ was the job God had given him to do. He had to make a final decision. He faced the great crisis of his life – but not the last crisis.

It was one thing to try things out in Nazareth; it was another to find himself shaken by a profound religious experience in which he believed God was, as it were, commissioning him for this great work. All he had read in the Old Testament, all he had become aware of in his own experience of God, all the ideas and convictions that had become clear in debate and argument with freedom-fighters and the rabbis met in one explosive moment.

What kind of work was this to be? Jesus went out into the lonely hills to pray and think things out. The ‘temptations’ or ‘testings’ Jesus faced came from the different ways in which he could have been the leader of his people. He turned them all down. The words of refusal he used all come from the great ‘Law Book’ in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) – a book he loved. It is as if he is saying, ‘No, that’s not God’s Way‘ (69-70).

A Housewife’s Meditation for Lent

‘Jesus returned from the Jordan…and was led by the Holy Spirit to spend 40 days in the desert…’

Lord it is Lent:

the time when some people give up luxuries in order to assume new duties.

The time when some people do their Spring cleaning, and buy new clothes for Easter.

But what did you do Lord to make this season what it is?

You got away from people: away from the distracting things of daily life, because you wanted to listen to your Father and find his way to conquer evil and liberate your friends.

Then you returned and met life at the points where good and evil meet, and everybody saw the power of God in you.

So what do I do Lord in this restless age?

The terrible temptation is to rush around every day being busy.

There is a terrible temptation to think I can’t find time for quiet, or even find a quiet place.

But in my heart of hearts I know that I need you.

Now in this age of jet-propulsion, space research and automation,

I must make time and find a place: a time and a place to learn the art of listening, Lord, and get to know you better.

That’s what I’ll do this Lent, Lord.

Patricia Mitchell

My Reflections:

Growing up & finding God’s Way:

‘Penance’ or ‘Repentance’ means a change of heart. These are real changes in our lives, and the way we reflect on them represents our process of growing up. This is mirrored in our spiritual life by our ‘growing in grace’, for we are not the victims of ‘fate’ or ‘chance’. We make changes through God’s grace and learn to manage other changes which come our way.

The message of Lent is concerned with these spiritual processes; growing up, learning to make and manage change, learning to find God’s Way, which is not always our own way.

The biggest change in my own life, becoming a father, has challenged me to listen to words I first heard as a teenager in new ways. In particular, two songs by the folk-singer Harvey Andrews have taken on fresh meanings. The first speaks of the awesome responsibility of bringing a child into today’s world. The second reflects on the changing relationships between a son and his father and evokes a spirit of repentance in the son towards his father which many of us can, I’m sure, identify with very strongly from our own experiences.

I’ve often thought about the relationship between Jesus and Joseph, perhaps because my work, my life as a teacher, was only just beginning when my father died. He too, like Joseph and Jesus, was a craftsman, a draughtsman in a Black Country steel-works. Like Jesus, coming from a working-class background with family responsibilities, he didn’t begin his ministry until he was in his thirties. How, I wonder, had Joseph felt about Jesus’ abrupt question in the Temple, ‘did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ The gospels tell us nothing of their relationship through Jesus’ teens and twenties when he kept to his earthly father’s business, honouring his apprenticeship as a carpenter, despite the ‘radicalisation’ of other young men around him, some of whom must have already died as ‘freedom-fighters’ against the Romans in what the Zealots saw as a ‘Holy Struggle’ in which God was calling them to become martyrs.

Significantly, his ministry begins with both a change of physical location as he goes south to join John at the Jordan, and a change of spiritual direction, as he accepts Baptism, the Act of Repentance, from his cousin. This was not an admission of previous guilt so much as a recognition of the turning point his acceptance of the call to ministry involved, as he sets off in a different direction into the wilderness to reflect of the momentous change that his public announcement would bring about, a course which would lead to conflict and confrontation with the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem, as well as with some of his own people in Galilee.

Dale’s paraphrasing of the wilderness experience brings out Jesus’ inner journey to find God’s Way, reflecting on his past in order to make a decision about what kind of leader he would be. In order for us to grow, through grace, into God’s Way, we too need periods of quiet reflection when we can listen to the struggling voices within us, silence them and come to terms with the decisions we need to make in order to change course into the path that God wants us to take. The turning points we face will be much more ‘incremental’ and far less radical than those faced by Jesus, but they need patient endeavour and endurance.

Prayer:

Patience in Seeking God’s Will;

‘Jesus, after he had fated forty days and forty nights…was hungry.’

Lord, we are hungry for the knowledge of the next step we must take. Give to us the long patience of Christ that we, like him, may not decide our future in haste; mercifully grant that hunger for an improvement in our lot; hunger for release from tension or anxiety; hunger for success in your service; or any other kind of appetite for things hidden in the future, may not stampede the soul into premature decisions.

Instead of turning these stones of impatience into the bread of hasty action, may it be our meat and drink to do your will, and like the Saviour find that we have meat to eat we knew not of.

Make us not to hunger for tomorrow, but to hunger and thirst after righteousness, in the sure knowledge that they who do so shall be filled; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Dick Williams

Prayer Book and Persecution, 1662.   Leave a comment

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Listening to the Sunday morning service on BBC Radio 4, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preaching on this the first Sunday in Lent, I was reminded of two great events in Church History which happened 350 years ago this year. The first was referred to in the introit sentence for Lent, taken from the Prayer Book published in 1662, ‘Rend not your garments, but your hearts’. I quoted this in last week’s blog about the Lent Events of last week, some outward signs of which are based on the Old Testament signs of penitence, ‘sackcloth and ashes’. The second, which I was reminded of by broadcasts and discussions throughout last week and again, by Dr Williams’ sermon from the King’s School in Canterbury this morning, referring to ‘God’s Liberty’, is known as ‘the Great Ejectment’ which followed ‘the Act of Uniformity‘ of 1662.

First, a little personal background is perhaps necessary in order to explain my spiritual motivations. I lived and worked in Canterbury until last year, worshipping in two very different Anglican churches and the United Reformed Church in Watling Street. I also attended Evensong at the Cathedral, and walked with my son on the Youth Pilgrimage twice on Easter Monday, a walk led by Rowan Williams along the River Stour into the city, where we sang joyful, vibrant songs accompanied by a rock band. The Pilgrimage started at Chartham, where I lived and worshipped, on opposite sides of the Village Green. Although a Nonconformist, a Baptist by believers’ baptism at the age of fourteen and a Quaker ‘by convincement’ in my twenties, I had, like Rowan Williams, found a home as a student in the disestablished Anglican church in Wales, training for teaching Religious Education at Trinity College, Carmarthen before taking up an appointment at a voluntary-controlled Church of England Secondary School in Lancashire. There I worshipped regularly at the local parish church, until I was told by the rector that if I wished to continue to take communion, I would need to be confirmed by the Bishop. Since I had already given my confession and been received into ‘the church universal’ ten years earlier, I saw no reason for this, and stopped attending. Instead, I found a very open, if small, meeting of Quakers in the town, and having attended Quaker meeting in my early student days in Bangor, again became a ‘refugee’ attender in Lancashire, then moving to Coventry, where I am still in membership, though unable to attend at present, being ‘in exile’ here in Hungary. So, when we went to live in Chartham as a family, we were delighted to be welcomed by the rector and congregation there, who had seen the last Nonconformist ’causes’ in the village close down, and made it clear that everyone living in the village, from whatever Christian ‘tradition’, was welcome to receive communion on equal terms. On this basis, I also became a member of the Parochial Church Council until the rector left and diocesan ‘authority’ was again restored.   From this background, you may begin to understand why I hold strong beliefs about religious liberties in general, the role of the state in this, and the rights of parents to have access to a broad and deep Religious Education for their children within the state-funded system which they support through taxation and, indeed, in the case of Nonconformity, helped to create.

I’ve always been interested in the History of Nonconformity, or ‘Dissent’, going back to the time of the Reformation and the ‘Gunpowder Plot‘. As a History teacher in my second appointment in Coventry, I researched the Catholic Rebellion in the Midlands which accompanied ‘the Plot’, which I discovered was really a plot by the Stuart state in Whitehall against the ‘recusant’ Midland gentry. I also joined the English Civil War re-enactors, ‘the Sealed Knot’ and began to play a ‘Quaker’ corporal in the New Model Army. It was then that I encountered the real chaplains in the Army, Henry Pinnell and Richard Baxter, both of whom had worked for a lasting peace with the King based on a tolerant, national church for all Protestant believers, which would no longer have the monarch as its Head. Charles refused this, and thereby lost his. I played the part of Pinnell in my regiment, much of the part being based on Baxter, about whom we know a lot more.

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and state, Baxter, as a leading Puritan, continued to work for a broad settlement in the Church of England. However, the restored bishops refused to take the hand of friendship from those, they believed, who had turned them out of their ‘livings’.  They also sincerely believed that the people were being wrongly taught, and persuaded the new King to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’, to make everyone conform to a uniform way of worship. The Puritan ministers would need to promise to use the restored Prayer Book and obey their bishops, or they would be expelled from their parishes. The deadline for this was set as St Bartholemew’s Day, August 24th, 1662. Baxter was one among many ministers who could not promise this, not because he couldn’t use the Prayer Book, but because he believed that it was wrong for the state to force people to do anything against their conciences, and so could not accept the Act itself.  Being turned out of their churches also meant losing their homes so that, as Baxter wrote in the autumn of 1662, “hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread”. Worse was to follow. Many of the people loved their ministers and tried to help them, following them about, listening to their teaching in private homes and outdoors. A further law was made, this time against the people as well as the ministers, stopping such meetings and imprisoning those attending to prison. This was called ‘The Conventicle (or Meeting) Act’. Prisons soon became full of brave people who defied the Act, especially the Quakers.  Baxter admired them for their courage in the face of persecution, though disagreeing with many of their ideas. They met openly and didn’t resist arrest, continuing their meetings in prison.  Baxter also fell victim to these laws. He couldn’t return to Kidderminster and had to move home nine times in three years, being followed by spies wherever he went, who reported even his visits to the sick, in which he prayed with them. This, the magistrates claimed, was a ‘conventicle’ under the law.  “What a joy would it have been to them” he wrote, “to have found but such an occasion as praying with a dying woman to have laid me up in prison.” Another time he was preaching in the window of a house when he was shot at, but muskets and pistols were not very accurate weapons, so thankfully no-one was hurt by the ‘sniper’s bullet’.

In 1665 the Great Plague came to London. Of course, it was the duty of clergymen to stay with the dying and help the  bereaved families, but so many fled into the country that the silenced nonconformist ministers were needed too badly for anyone to stop them from ministering to the Plague victims. They said that “no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by the law’ “.  Despite this, or perhaps because of the popularity they had gained because of it, another Act was passed against them, the Five Mile Act, forbidding them from coming within five miles of any important town or any place where they had once been ministers. Since help from ‘the Parish’ for the jobless could only be obtained from the area which was, or had been, their home, this meant that the nonconformist ministers would be starved out. Some emigrated, and those that stayed either hid in out-of-the-way villages, or lived secretly near their own homes, visiting their wives and children only at night.  Baxter shows how, even by this hard law, God was able bring good out of evil, because many ministers had little to lose by continuing to preach and teach openly rather than see their children starve. So congregations continued to grow and support them, and there were not enough jails to hold the numbers defying the  three Acts of Parliament.

One of those living in prison was John Bunyan, who had been an officer in Cromwell’s Army, and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became the second most popular book in England, and one of the most important works of literature in English, because of its influence on the development of the language. It was written during his seven years in Bedford Jail.  Baxter himself, and his family, escaped the Plague, though the churchyard at Acton, six miles from London, “was like a ploughed field with graves”.  The Great Fire of 1666, the next terrible event to strike the City. Everyone knows Pepys’ version of these events, and I’m using a simplified English reader on it in class at present, but Baxter noticed that “those who had money managed to get their carts and carriages and horses to carry away their possessions from the burning houses, but the poor lost almost all they had”.  The only possessions Baxter ever cared much about were his books, perhaps because he, like Bunyan, believed the pen to be ‘mightier than the sword’ or, to put it another way which I was also reminded of last week, ‘books are weapons’ (it’s a pity that those American soldiers who burnt copies of the Qu’uran were not educated enough to understand the symbolic force their act would have). Baxter noted in his diary the huge number of books destroyed in the fire:

“Almost all the booksellers in St Paul’s Churchyard brought their books  into vaults under St Paul’s where it was thought almost impossible that fire should come. But the Church itself being on fire, the exceeeding weight of stones falling down did break into the vault and let in the fire and they could not come near to save the books.”

Many othe libraries were burnt and six miles away at Acton Baxter noticed half-burnt pages blowing past his cottage door. Just as he had had to go to the battlefield at Edgehill to see the destruction for himself, so too with the Fire. Defying the Five Mile Act, on his way to the City he saw “the fields filled with heaps of goods and costly furniture” and at last caught sight of “all the buildings aflame” and “the air as far as could be beheld, so filled with the smoke that the sun shined through it with a colour like blood”.

Baxter thought these events should have stopped the religious quarrels and persecutions, but each side blamed the other for what had happened. The nonconformists, who were among the poor Londoners who suffered most, were one of the groups blamed for starting the fire, perhaps because their ministers had been forced, like Baxter, to leave the City’s churches, and people suspected it was an act of vengeance on their part. This shows how little such people understood the beliefs of the Dissenting congregations, however, who once more were allowed to open their meeting houses to those who needed comfort and shelter, or a place to meet,  having not only lost their houses and possessions but also their places of worship.

Baxter himself was careful not to be seen as setting himself up in competition with the established church, still hoping for a better settlement with it. He continued to preach to family and friends in Acton, and then to growing numbers from surrounding parishes, but he did not preach during church times and, since his house was close to the church, he took people to hear the Vicar after he had preached to them!  However, the Vicar eventually became jealous of Baxter and informed the King that Baxter was breaking the Conventicle Act.  He was visited by the magistrates, but refused to stop preaching and so was imprisoned, but Newgate was too full of Quakers already!  So instead, he was sent to Clerkenwell where he was allowed a room of his own, which his wife could share.  However, he knew that, on release, he would have to leave Acton, because of the Five Mile Act.

I’ll be writing more about his time in and out of prison later in the week. For now, I want to conclude with the points that I raised to begin with. The attempts of the state to impose uniformity in religion through the 1662 Prayer Book seem a very long way away from the tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-faith society we live in today. Yet our society did not emerge out of that one like a butterfly out of a chrysalis as if by magic. It required the courage, self-discipline and sacrifices of men and women like Richard Baxter,  John Bunyan and William Penn, whom I shall also be writing about later. Let me sign off, for now, with this paradox: ‘out of unity, comes diversity; out of diversity comes unity’.

Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday   1 comment

‘Shrove Tuesday’ can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women aged eighteen and over who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner is kissed by the verger and receives a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantagous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormondizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May. More on this next week….

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