Isaiah and Strength found in Exile.

A longer Read

Until a few days ago one of the many odd things about this lockdown period has been the weather. It’s been good enough to sit out at our garden table, although sometimes protected by the second hide of my familiar leather jacket. April has been bright and sunny and warm, with the nights colder and clearer as we have watched the paschal moon come and go, and then the new moon come; hanging in the early evening below Venus, amongst the field of stars shining like gem-flakes in the blackness of the sky. By day the lime trees on each side of the hedge which divides our little glebe field from the churchyard have been coming into full leaf – a glory of green freshness. As they do they draw their summer veil over our view of the east end of St Mary’s, the crooked spire is almost obscured, but still visible is most of the chancel gable, and the cross that surmounts it. How right was David Robinson as Churchwarden to insist that cross went back after the major restoration of thirteen years ago...

So I can see the church, but I don’t go in it. I could, if I had a maintenance excuse, but I don’t. I have been in it to collect things for worship, and will again, and an odd experience it is. For those of you who can’t go in, and part of the reason I do not under the present restrictions imposed by the bishops of the Church of England of which more later, is because I don’t want to privilege myself for no good reason- for those of you who cannot go in, I would like to let you know that it still feels like a holy place, a place of prayer. It still feels like the heart of Cleobury, Christ its Master is still there and his old and beautiful building, filled with light in these strange days is like a faithfully waiting beast, like a mother from the animal kingdom, not forlorn, but quiet and expectant for her young ones to return to her.

 Contemplating our church from the garden, I don’t feel a sense of loss exactly, what I experience is the condition of exile, and exile speaks in the many tongues of the heart. There are places I love and may not go to; sometimes I am torn with hiraeth for West Wales, sometimes aching with desir for la douce France. But much worse I am exiled from people I love. When will I see my son in London again, worst still, when will he and his girlfriend working for the NHS in Leamington see each other again?

But the view of the church here in Cleobury presents me with a particular kind of exile that I want to explore in this piece. I am going to look at in the light of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which is the product of the Jewish people’s experience of exile. And there is one aspect of exile which is unique to the experience of Christians who worship in Anglican churches. I need to say I am a strong supporter of the lockdown, it is the only real weapon we have had as a country against the coronavirus, and it is very probable that we should have deployed it earlier. The New Zealand Prime Minister’s description of her government’s action as ‘hard and early’ indeed made her sound like an All Blacks coach, but the results in terms of public health in that country are as plain as its prowess on the pitch. And so now in this country places of worship and all kinds of churches have been closed to the public. However, the bishops of the Church of England have gone further. Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy are streaming and broadcasting worship from within their closed churches, with appropriate social distancing. These services are a huge comfort to their people. But Anglican clergy in England are forbidden from doing this, which is why your clergy in this Benefice are leading you in worship from their homes. Our brother and sister priests in the Church in Wales are able to broadcast worship from closed churches, and, logically, Welsh bishops are leading worship from within chapels in their houses. Because your clergy have sworn obedience to our bishop we cannot, and will not do this.

However, decisions have consequences. The consequence of this decision is that people in Cleobury, in our Benefice and in England are excluded from their parish churches. And I use that phrase deliberately. The theology of the Church of England is what it says on the tin, St Mary’s and its sister churches belong to their communities. They present the love that energises the Holy Trinity to all their people. And now the worship which chiefly manifests that love has ceased, for the first time in eight hundred years. We are excluded, the people of God are in exile.

Now to be an exile is to be in great danger. All of us are living in dread of the virus taking substantial hold in places like the Greek island camps, Gaza, or the Rohingya refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where the potential for suffering is unimaginable. To compare our spiritual with their physical exile in terms of danger is obviously ridiculous, but it is worth remembering the reality of exile in general to remind ourselves that it should only be a strategy of last resort, and it should be capable of justification with good arguments. Our government has rightly had to justify its policy in the light of attendant risks to mental health and from domestic abuse as we all understand.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is the product of the Jewish experience of exile, reflecting that painful and dangerous experience in its shape, in what is in it, and the things that it is interested in. To Jewish people and to Christians it is one of the most important part of God’s revelation, and indeed it has been described by the latter as ‘the fifth Gospel’.

Isaiah is literally at the centre of the Bible, if you take one and open it evenly, the chances are that it will fall open somewhere in its sixty-six chapters. It is the longest book of the Bible, and in the middle! Taken individually its verses and chapters are full of things Christians find familiar even if they are not quite sure where they come from, but as always with scripture the whole is much more exciting and enlightening than the parts. The structure of the book is a bit complicated and definitely reflects its nature as a meditation on God’s relationship with His people rather than a history of it. Roughly speaking, Chapters 1-39 tell the story of the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz and his ministry (mostly of warning) to the kings in Jerusalem in the Eighth Century BC, when Judah was menaced by the rising power of the Assyrians. Chapters 40-56 see the Assyrians replaced by the Babylonians as God’s instrument of justice, and now by one of those time-shifts that happen in dreams we are in exile in Babylon itself in the Sixth Century, and then the last ten chapters move forward again in time, to the moment when the Jewish exiles have got back to Jerusalem and started work on rebuilding the Temple in 515 BC. Within this general plan there are sections that have found themselves a new context within material from a different source in the final edition.

The book has been described as a meditation on Jerusalem: Jerusalem condemned, Jerusalem convicted and lost, Jerusalem regained, but I would say that the idea of the Temple is central to the vision of Jerusalem itself, the Temple destroyed, the Temple lamented and recalled with the aching longing of the exile, and at the end the Temple  restored. It is this theme of the Temple which is obviously relevant to our exile from St Mary’s and all her sister parish churches. Isaiah (from now on in this article when I write the name I mean the book not the man) has a powerful vision of the Temple at its heart. In Chapter 6 there is a vision of the Temple which resonates with clergy because it is one of the readings for the ordination service, the description of the prophet’s calling becomes linked in our minds with the formal and spiritual consummation of our own calling as Christian ministers. It is a vision of the worship in the Temple as a way through to the worship of the heavenly court itself.

“In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said –

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; and the whole earth is full of his glory.’

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!’ Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ “

So then at the primal centre of the Isaiah narrative there lies an encounter with God in the majesty of His Temple. Obviously Christian commentators picked up on the triple acclamation of the seraphim as an affirmation of the Holy Trinity. But for us today, the text presents two things to think about. Firstly the prophet encounters God in the context of liturgical worship in a wonderful building designed to house it by the people of God. It reminds us that our experience of worship in church is valid, our sense of it as something that feeds us, that facilitates a real meeting with the Lord is genuine and legitimate. For most Anglicans our spirituality is shaped by our personal history of participation in worship and by time spent praying in church. I have a very vivid memory of my confirmation and the first time I received communion, kneeling below the chancel arch in St Leonard’s in Bridgnorth. Along the line of the arch there is a quotation from Genesis 29, from the moment when Jacob dreaming has a vision of a ladder on which he sees angels ascending and descending and exclaimed “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” At that point I perceived church as a place where I might from the earthly world access the heavenly one, a place where the two equal realities meet and intersect. That realisation has never left me and has been reinforced by many similar experiences and by many people who speak of the same kind of feeling. Churches are not monuments or artefacts, they may in fact not even be aesthetically attractive, but the intensity and volume of prayer that they have known have made them, to use the jargon, ‘thin places,’ and what is true of an empty building when we visit it for solitary prayer is magnified many times when we worship in them as a body, the body of Christ. And in the life of our communities there is a sort of objective measure of this, our mother churches are places where people snatch moments out of their day to come and step out of the secular round, and places where people seek refuge in times of trial. They might not be able to explain why it works for them, but somehow, whatever their beliefs, it does.

Of course we have to be careful. One thing I haven’t yet said about Isaiah is that it is a record of the Jewish people’s interaction with paganism. When the kingdom of David was a going concern and a home for most of the people obviously the Hebrews were aware of paganism, but in exile they were condemned to a culture where it was inescapably dominant. They had two reactions to it, one negative, one positive. The negative one was to condemn idolatry, in which condemnation we should be happy to join. We shouldn’t see churches as an end in themselves. For Anglicans our relationship with the heritage industry over the last decades has been a focus of contagion for this temptation. So has our being subsumed into the tourist and leisure sector. All this has to change post-covid. There are many ways in which the temples will have to be cleansed.

Not idols but icons...

To sum up where we have got to so far although they are obviously not essential in the practice of our faith, our churches work for us spiritually as windows, ladders or gateways by which we can more easily than by our own efforts be taken from ‘this world’ to use St Paul’s idea, by grace to the place where God reigns absolutely, beyond the sight of our physical eyes.

At this point I became too cross with developments within church and state to continue writing this without, frankly, ranting. I start again on the 13th of June.

I went back into St Mary’s yesterday. It was of course still locked and empty, but it was different. Our churchwardens with Ina have worked incredibly hard to prepare it for private prayer, the seating is socially distanced, anything that might harbour the virus that can be removed has been. It will be able to be kept clean.

To my mind, the atmosphere inside has changed dramatically, and it is little to do with the physical layout. Our church home is still waiting, but now not in a quiet sense, but in a sense of excited anticipation. I was reminded of the excitement that our family story recalls of my great grandmother laying the breakfast table before my great-uncle came back from being presumed dead on the Somme. Our local mother church is ready to welcome her children home, the exile is passing away.

When the exiles returned to Jerusalem the desolate, to restore her, things were different for them – they did not return as the same Israel that had been torn away many decades before. And I think we will not return to St Mary’s and her sister churches as the same Christian people who locked them up nearly three months ago. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Jewish people were taken away from their tribal setting, and brought into a great multi-ethnic pagan metropolis. They could have socially and spiritually retreated into a closed bubble. They did not – the authors of Isaiah tell us how they engaged with the peoples around them and their image of the power and compassion of God broadened.  God is no longer ‘their’ god in amongst a competing cast of tribal gods, rather monotheism has been born: “I am the first and the last. Beside me there is no other god.” (Is. 44. v 6). And this has consequences, if God is universal, then his dispensation must extend beyond Israel to all nations, and it does: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to serve him and love his name... these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

What then of our own house of prayer? During our short exile things have been happening. Two of them strike me as important. Our worship online has been joined by some who do not regularly attend worship physically. Mark’s work has had many more views than people who come into church. Nationally in this period research has shown that a very high percentage of the population has engaged with Christian output, especially prayer resources. Secondly we know that within the community of Cleobury people have spoken greatly of their attachment to St Mary’s, and of their desolation about being deprived of it as a sanctuary and as a place where the beauty of holiness is present to our senses and souls, especially in times of trial or joy. If we are welcoming and agile in what we do in giving our brothers and sisters spiritual food from now on, then we can hope that these engagements grow, we can speak beyond the tribe and make manifest the universal compassion of God.

The people of God did not return unchanged to rebuild their temple. They may well have gained a sense of themselves as a ‘light to lighten the nations’ (Is. 49. v 6), but they only had been able to do so because they had a clearer vision of their identity. Much scholarship teaches that the earlier books of the Old Testament took their present form in the time of the Exile in Babylon, weaving together oral traditions and more fragmentary sources. Perhaps we too can be bolder about our identity as ‘the people of the way’, after all we have some pretty serious things as a Church to say to a world which seems aflame with a cry for justice.

For we do not return undamaged to the Temple. The psalms were originally worship songs for it, but in exile their tone is transformed. They are shaped by the same kaleidoscope of emotion that we might have been feeling in lockdown..... fear, separation, fierce love and joy in relationship, and indeed anger – for we live in an increasingly angry age. One of the most beautiful and soul piercing openings of a psalm, lamenting in the heart-aching longing of exile, is that of 137, ‘By the waters of Babylon, there sat we down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our lyres.....’  but it closes with the most terrible ending in the Bible, ‘O daughter of Babylon, you devastator.... happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’

So we bring back to church not just rejoicing; but pain for loss, fear for the future, economic insecurity, anger at a world more threatening - there will be no ‘getting back to normal.’ But this is alright. God hears us and is giving us an opportunity to listen to and speak to people on a level which goes far deeper than surface expressions. The work we have been exploring in relation to a ministry of Wholeness and Healing is the best preparation for this engagement.

The universalism of Isaiah does not just encompass human and national relationships. Now in the time of global lockdown, with the aircraft grounded, the factories silent, the streets of great cities stilled and empty, we have been acutely conscious of creation, breathing in release from the pressure that the knee of human economic activity sets on its throat. The air became clear, from the great cities of northern India the Himalayas became visible, the canals of Venice laden with pollution became clear with fish swimming against their beds unseen for centuries. Bears and their cubs came down with growing confidence from the high Pyrenees, dolphins joyfully have played in the quietened harbour of Piraeos. Our interdependence with the natural world has been massively brought home to us. On the one hand a tiny speck of an organism that can barely be described as a living thing has brought nations low probably because of our rash carelessness with creation; on the other the beauty of creation, its plant and animal life and its fragility has been shown to us in a vision which we cannot turn away from again. It may be our last chance.

Isaiah 11 speaks of a world of cosmic, or we might say, ecological harmony: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea..”

When the exiles returned to Jerusalem they built a new temple, and worshipped in it as they had the old one. But they were a changed people, as if they had undergone a new Exodus. There was no ark in the new temple, it was lost. Rather in the heart of the building was an empty space, silent, waiting. The Covenant between God and his people now existed for a time in human hearts alone. But God was going to speak again into the emptiness, and come among us to create a newer Temple still, the Temple of his Body.

 On Monday, that Temple will begin coming back to the place that represents it, in a great part, to the people of Cleobury. We are the living stones of that Temple, there is much to do, we perhaps have learned much, and changed. There has been much care and prayer. There has been and will be suffering, but our House is a strong house of hope, of love, of resurrection.

God bless,