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Lockdown again!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…

It’s already a month since the ‘lockdown’ was announced and almost as long since we closed the doors of the Cathedral to clergy, staff and public alike. Not the doors pictured in this post I hasten to add, they belong to the most holy of churches in all of Christendom: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in old Jerusalem. For the first time since 1309, when bubonic plague forced its closure, this year there was no fire of Easter, no cries, by thousands circling the tomb, of ‘He is Risen’, no pilgrims crowding through its wide-open doors and being loudly reminded to keep quiet by the many officious stewards and often squabbling monks.

It’s at least good to know that, as we in Newcastle follow the Archbishop’s Guidance on church closures, we are in the same boat as many others throughout the world. It can feel harsh, of course, and there are already voices agitating for clerical disobedience. There are clergy struggling to get to grips with living faith without their access to their physical fiefdom and to be fair there are no doubt many folk clergy and lay who miss their worship places but who for the sake of the common good quietly make the sacrifice, grateful that they are alive and well – and that in the NHS we have a care and support network that is ready to help if things turn for the worse.

But if we should be aware that our lockout is shared with other churches and other faith communities we might also be comforted to know that the Church has survived closed doors before, just as our ancestors have lived through plague and disaster.

In 1198 Innocent III was elected Pope and a year later John became the English king. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1205 the monks of Canterbury secretly elected one of their canons (Reginald, the sub-prior) as his successor without any consultation with the King or the Bishops. He was quietly sent to Rome to get the Pope’s approval before the news broke but he couldn’t resist telling folk on route. The King was incensed and nullified his election and put forth a candidate of his own choosing (John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich).

The Pope took advantage of the chaos by refusing both candidates and choosing a third (Stephen Longton who though English lived almost all of his life in Paris). An infuriated King John refused to welcome Langton and an almighty row between King and Pope ensued. So, on 23 March 1208 (note the uncanny irony of the day and month!) the English Bishops made an interdict which suspended all religious services, it denied the Mass to all but priests, there were no marriages and no burials – though it seems churches were open for private prayer and of course to collect offerings.

The chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, who later excised any description of the English interdict from his chronicle, described with horror an earlier interdict imposed on France in 1200:

O what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs, the cessation of divine office, the withholding of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, the people no longer flocking to the famous celebrations of saints’ days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, of whom the stink infected the air and the horrible sight filled with horror the minds of the living.

It took a whole six years until the interdict was lifted in 1214… but the Church survived and in time the doors were unbolted and life in St Nicholas resumed.

Plague and pestilence have also attacked the town far more than on the odd occasion, though fortunately for this generation, not until now. No doubt Newcastle and the great Cathedral Lantern Tower has witnessed desolate scenes and heard the cries of suffering folk, on occasions throughout history. John McQullan published a brief history of St Nicholas and the city in 1903 and tells of a dreadful pestilence that hit the town in 1675 killing 924 people. They called the plague ‘The Jolly Rant’ though I don’t understand why because it sounded anything but ‘jolly’. He lets a local of the time, Hosea Hinkleter, tell the tale of his visit to a lively visit to the Newcastle market. His account is every bit as raucous as the Bigg Market on a Saturday night without the good offices of the Street Pastors I might add.

He laughs at a woman being ducked for nagging who cleverly drags her husband in the water with her, shakes his head at the unruly apprentices giving offence to all around just being saved from a night locked up in the Tower by a sudden change of mood and temper in the crowd. He recalls that faces paled in horror and people faded into the shadows. He says that ‘even the taverns and coffee houses were deserted. Some strange wizardry was in the air and almost without hearing of it the people knew its portent. It was, the Pest – that dread foe, which spared neither old nor young’. He goes on to describe stumbling home in the dark and tripping over the dead body of sailor. “Ere the foul spirit was spent’, he continues, ‘there was many a stricken home, and the buriers did much gruesome work.’ McQuillan continues, ‘Visitations such as this coming ever and anon, kept the people close to the Church and to the Church’s God. The unseen had to be shorn of some of its terrors and the Deity to be propitiated by worship and gifts.’

What is true is that St Nicholas and the town lived to see another day… and so, I hope, will most of us. But that last quote from McQuillan’s account crystallised some things that have been bothering me for a little while now. It would be good to think that people are drawn closer to the faith in this difficult time. Indeed, we can evidence already that we have growing numbers joining us for Morning Prayer, Daily Reflections and Sunday Worship which is great news. For many of us the acts of kindness that we have observed, received and undertaken are powerful signs of hope and of the working of God’s Spirit, even if that is for some, God ‘incognito’ at work, so to speak. But we cannot (must not) ignore that there are difficult questions to be struggled with and religious pitfalls that I hope Christians (and the Church) will not too readily fall into. To start with any suggestion that our God is a ‘deity to be propitiated by worship and gifts’ makes me shudder; just like any idea that our God distributes his bounty, or healing power, among us by measuring the quality of our faith or the number of our prayers. Such ideas are cruel heresies that if peddled will damage (and worse destroy) the Church and rightly so!

Of course, amid the tragedy that we face day in day out there will also be good outcomes from this difficult time: New skills, new ways of working, new opportunities for sharing our faith, new kindnesses. We must drag every bit of good we can from what is a dire situation. But never, please never, never, let us condone any idea that our God, wishes, wants or needs COVID-19 upon us.

So, lockdown continues, thankfully there are glimmers of light on the horizon for everyone and even for the Cathedral. Asbestos is now all but banished from the Cathedral. A small troupe of workmen are tackling the dirty work on drains and boilers. The Archaeologist has been able to get on with some more detailed planning of how the ledger stones will be laid. The Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee is busy considering a whole wodge of papers that lay down plans for the next phases of work. Things will go on. Of course, we will need to be nimble, courageous, ready for the marathon ahead, with some realistic confidence. This will be an integral part of the transformation as a Christian community that we have embarked upon and what a journey it is proving to be.

But the Cathedral, well I think it has seen it all before, and stood solid to tell the tale. It will do so again, of that I am sure! Just like the God we serve will be with us every single step of the way.


[Foot note: I am indebted to an article by Francis Young in The Catholic Herald for some of the detail in this post.]