Friday, August 21, 2020

In Memoriam

The following tribute to my late father was authored by William Peak in 2014 and he has been kind enough to permit me to post it on this blog. You can find the original post here.

A Fine Man: Gerald Bonner

I believe it was sometime in 1988 that I sent Gerald Bonner the telegram. I was thinking about writing a novel, and I’d done just enough research to know he was the expert when it came to the time and place in which I wanted to set my story: Northumbria, the 7th century. So I sent him a telegram (“Yes, Virginia, there was a time before e-mail.”) and asked if I might meet with him when I came to England to research my book. Then I sat back and waited for a reply.

None came.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I have great respect for professional historians, and I am well aware of the fact I am not one. So when my first attempt to contact one of the big names in the field met with silence, I felt as if I’d been found out. See, I thought, this is what you get for believing you could write a work of historical fiction. The real pros, like Bonner, won’t have anything to do with you.

Still, the tickets for England had already been purchased. So I made my trip, visited all the sites and archives I’d hoped to visit, and then, despite misgivings, drove up to Durham University where Bonner then served as a professor of history in the Department of Theology and Religion. On my second day there, I screwed up my courage, put on my best bib and tucker, and marched into the great man’s office unannounced.

And he met me with open arms.

It turned out he had received my telegram and had wanted to reply to it but couldn’t. The form I’d filled out at the telegraph office had required me to list both my home address and telephone number, and, foolishly, I had assumed that this information would be transmitted along with my telegram to its recipient. It hadn’t been, which explained Bonner’s silence.

But the good professor wasn’t silent now. Despite the fact I didn’t have an appointment, despite the fact he was a busy man with, I assume, any number of classes to teach and projects to pursue, he dropped everything and spent the better part of that afternoon talking with me and advising me on my book. You cannot imagine how important it was to me to have a man of Bonner’s stature take me and my ideas seriously. It gave me courage, it strengthened my resolve, I found myself beginning to believe in this novel I wanted to write. It could be done, I thought, it could be written. I could write it.

Bonner St Cuthbert

The book that grew out of that conversation in a Durham University office in 1988, The Oblate’s Confession, will be officially launched this Monday, Dec. 1. Unfortunately, Gerald Bonner passed away last year. I hope he would have been liked my book, for his encouragement and inspiration helped create it. And he was such a fine man. At one point in our conversation, I remember, I asked him if he ever read historical fiction himself. “I like to take my history neat,” he replied, but then, doubtless noticing the look of disappointment that must have passed over my face, he added, “though I did rather enjoy that novel by the American writer, Frederick Buechner, what was its name? Godric, that’s it, Godric!” How kind a verbal postscript that was, how kind and how characteristically generous. I owe Gerald Bonner a great deal. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Wise words from Francis Collins

It's one of the great tragedies of this current moment that scientifically based public-health measures have somehow been captured as cultural or political phenomena. Your chance of spreading the coronavirus to a vulnerable person has nothing to do with what culture you come from or what political party you belong to. Your responsibility is to try and prevent that from happening to vulnerable people around you. But our country's polarization is so extreme that it even seems to extend to a place like this - where it absolutely doesn't belong. That is really troubling because it's putting people at risk who shouldn't be. 

The full interview is here and is well worth reading. Dr. Collins is the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, but his opinion is as relevant to residents of the United Kingdom. We cannot know when we meet a stranger in a public place whether they live with someone vulnerable and therefore need to distance, so we should always act on the assumption that they do. As Collins notes about growing resistance to mask-wearing: "The mask is not for you. That's for everybody around you. If you care about your neighbours, your family, the people you encounter in the store - wear that mask." If people are asymptomatic (as many appear to be), they have no awareness of their potential to infect those vulnerable to a cytokine storm but they are still potential vectors.  

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Creed of Athanasius

Yesterday (Trinity Sunday) is one of the days appointed for the recitation of the so-called Athanasian Creed, an excerpt of which appears below.

The Father is made of none: neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other: none is greater, or less than another;
But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal.
So that in all things, as is aforesaid: the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
He therefore that will be saved: must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;
God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;
Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;
Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.
Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;
One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;
One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.
For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Cummings Affair

The following letter was sent to Dominic Cummings and copied to the Labour MP for the City of Durham (my home constituency) and the Tory MPs for Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield (all of whom seem reluctant to demonstrate their populist credentials in this matter).


Dear Mr. Cummings,

I can well appreciate how, faced with an unknown illness, even the most balanced of people might be tempted to act as you did, but reading the accounts of your press conference (and the prime minister’s statement yesterday) I am struck by how little empathy was expressed for ordinary people in similar situations who adhered to the letter of the rules. Either you contravened the spirit of the rules or – assuming your interpretation was correct – others were unfairly obliged to submit to an unduly harsh discipline. If the latter was the case, why, at least since you returned to work, have you failed to urge the government in which you play such a prominent role to clarify that other parents should have been allowed the same freedom to act as you did at the height of the crisis?

At the time of the Lockdown, a neighbour of mine in Durham City and I took steps to organise our neighbourhood. We have thankfully had no situation of the sort that you and your wife faced, but I feel sure we would have found a way to help a household where both parents were incapacitated and young children needed care. If no such network existed in Islington, I still find it incredible that in your circle of friends and neighbours there was no one to whom you could turn, and even if that had been the case, the government advice at the time was for parents in such a situation to approach their local authority hub. Moreover, assuming that your trip to Durham was essential, is your job so important that it necessitated a return to London upon recovery when one would have assumed that you could continue to provide advice to the prime minister remotely?

The overriding impression is of an individual who believed himself so vital to the governing process that he must be allowed to interpret the rules himself and it does not seem to have occurred to you to ask anyone other than the prime minister (one of the medical officers, for example) for a ruling. I find myself recalling Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the exercise of “power without responsibility.” Of course a parent may decide that his family must take priority but when he or she holds a position of responsibility should there not be a penalty for so acting, particularly when so many have lost spouses and parents in tragic circumstances and even been denied the opportunity to be present at their deathbeds? Are not officials who give advice honour bound to follow it or is collective responsibility dead? I note that your mother has recently attributed your visit in part to the death of a beloved uncle, but, again, many have been denied the opportunity to mourn as families.   

At your press conference, you seemed inclined to treat all criticism of your actions as propounded by those who resented your stance on Brexit (or your opinions in general). I suspect that there are many who voted Leave (myself included) who also find your arrogance in this matter infuriating. I can’t help but wonder what the ex-Labour voters who swung Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield to the Tories for the first time in more than eighty years feel about this situation. So much for the populist rhetoric of recent years! It would truly seem to be the case that, in the words of George Orwell, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”        

Almost thirty years ago I first became acquainted with the career of Jack Lawson, later a Labour MP for Chester-Le-Street. Early in his career Lawson was offered the opportunity to study for an Oxford degree (which would have opened doors to a white collar or professional career):

I was grateful but refused. Mr. Hurd pressed me, but I told him I was going back to the picks and the pit, in pursuance of my ideal . . . I did not want a professional career. I was of the pits, and would spend my life there, demonstrating, in fact, that a manual worker might be an educated man, and that education would end his life of low standards in return for grinding work. So we thanked those great-hearted considerate people who had designed this thing and went our way.[1]
That, to me, is what self-sacrifice is about and from a County Durham man, no less.

[1] Jack Lawson, A Man’s Life (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1949), 106. 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

A Different Triduum

We are entering the Sacred Triduum, the three-day observance of Christ's Passion that opens with the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, passes through the darkness of Good Friday and culminates in the triumph of the Easter Resurrection. One has only to recall the Sri Lanka bombings of Easter Sunday just one year ago to recognise that even Easter itself does not preclude human suffering and death. In the suffering of the Cross, Our Lord participated - and continues to participate - in the most profound of human tragedies, even, one might argue in that sense of abandonment and separation that at times overwhelms even those of deepest faith.

So much of the liturgy of the Triduum involves acts that are communal in nature but the reality of the present time demands of many that they cease from such intimate contact. An obvious exception concerns those in the medical profession. Their actions today and over the weeks and months ahead - whether performed as avowed followers of Christ or not - embody the New Commandment.

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them . . . Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.  Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 12: 12-17, 31-35)
It seems likely that the coronavirus peak will occur during Easter Week. For those suffering the loss of loved ones it will be hard to bear. May our prayers for them prove to be peculiarly efficacious.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Mortality in a postmodern age

To view the swelling tallies of mortality across Europe - most notably in Italy and Spain - cannot fail to impress even the most detached. It is rather telling that we are all too often less affected by similar phenomena in Africa or Asia; tragedies closer to home tend to have greater impact. It is also the case that the present situation places unprecedented limits on the consolations traditionally attending the moment of death, most notably the presence of loved ones at a bedside and shared funeral rites.

The full impact of the coronavirus pandemic has yet to be felt in Great Britain, so no enduring conclusions can yet be drawn from overall deaths registered at this date. However (and I here acknowledge the observations recently made by M.D. in Private Eye) a consideration of monthly deaths registered by the Office for National Statistics for January and February going back five years reveals the following.









Deaths for the month of January were lower in 2020 than for the same period in 2015, 2017 and 2018, while they were the lowest in six years for the month of February. The figures for Week 12 (the third week of March) have just been released, and reveal that in the course of three weeks, there were 32,560 deaths (the monthly average for the same three weeks over the past five years was 33,264, with more deaths being recorded in 2015 and 2018 than in 2020). Clearly the figures for the week ending March 27 will be much more indicative of whether there is a coronavirus-inspired increase in deaths. What is striking is that it is 2018 rather than 2020 that has thus far been the outlier in terms of winter deaths. There were 7,448 more deaths in January and 5,524 more deaths in February in 2018 than in the current year, while there were 5,138 additional deaths in Weeks 10-12 of 2018. This means that, using a very crude measure, there were something in the order of 18,000 additional deaths in the UK alone in the first three months of 2018 (or almost half the total of global deaths currently ascribed to coronavirus).

While these observations are in no way intended to downplay the significance of greatly increased death rates in such epicentres as Lombardy, it does demonstrate how unaware the general public (amongst whom I count myself) can be of disease burdens that do not impinge directly upon them. It is the combination of the unknown quality of the coronavirus, the absence of a vaccine, the enhanced transmissibility evident in the infections sustained by many world leaders and – most notably – the anticipated inability of many health systems to handle exponential growth in cases that has brought us to the present moment.

Update April 3    

The following table is appended to Nick Triggle's article of April 1.

Chances of dying from coronavirus vs normal risk

This model would seem to suggest that except for those under 25 (where the death rate is appreciably lower than the norm, overall death rates are largely unchanged with the presence of coronavirus. The figures for hospital deaths with coronavirus present were 582 for the week of March 21-March 27 and 2,846 for the week of March 28-April 3, but this assumes that the presence of coronavirus precipitated death. A comparison of deaths in early 2018 and 2019, reveals the weekly excess to have been 2,313 in January, 845 in February, and 1,644 in March.   

Update April 7

The Week 13 figures have just been released, showing deaths to be 11,141, the highest in six years. Those attributed to all respiratory diseases are 1,534, more than 2017 and 2019, but less than 2015, 2016 and 2018. For weeks 10-13 (covering most of March in 2020), the total number of deaths was 43,974, the second-highest in five years, but still 3,665 less than 2018. This means that, in the first quarter of the year there were still 16,500 fewer deaths in 2020 than in 2018. 

From March 28 to to April 3 there have been about 2,800 further deaths attributed to coronavirus. Averaging all deaths over the past five years suggests one might expect to see around 10,800 deaths for this period (though possibly as high as 11,500). The extent to which the reported figure exceeds 12,000 may well be the best guide.     

Update April 14

The Week 14 figures report deaths as 16,387, of which 3,475 mention the presence of Covid-19 (21.2 percent). This weekly figure is appreciably higher than any over the past five years (in Week 2 of January 2018 there were 15,050 deaths). The weekly excess for Week 14 alone is 5,500 deaths, although two-fifths of that are not attributed to coronavirus (unless these reflect undiagnosed at-home deaths). There have now been four successive days of declining numbers of deaths but it has been the Easter Weekend, so today's release of figures will likely indicate whether it is yet a trend. Hospital admissions thankfully appear to have plateaued.  

Update April 22

Entering Week 15 we find deaths to have reached 18,516, of which 6,213 mention the presence of Covid-19 (33.5 percent). This weekly figure is the highest for the twenty-first century. The weekly excess for Week 15 alone is 8,000 deaths, although a quarter of these are not attributed to coronavirus. In just two weeks, we have reached 80 percent of the excess deaths in the first three months of 2018. 

Update May 7

Over the course of Weeks 16 and 17, overall deaths rose to 22,351 before falling back slightly to 21,997, reflecting a two-weekly excess of 23,393. Deaths attributed to coronavirus were 8,758 in Week 16 and 8,237 in Week 17, with ONS figures finally reflecting the beginning of a decline in deaths. However, around 6,000 deaths over these two weeks do not appear to be attributable to Covid-19, perhaps collateral damage from the decreased use of the NHS for other health conditions. Over a five-week period there appears to have been around 38,000 excess deaths, of which around 27,000 have a Covid-19 connection. This compares with 5,000 fewer deaths compared to the five-year average in the first twelve weeks of the year. All-cause mortality for the five week period went from 9,675 a week to 18,078 a week. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

After a week of Lockdown

Who would have thought just a few short weeks ago that one would be contemplating the almost total cessation of normal everyday activities? Durham is no metropolis, but as a university town its thoroughfares are usually bustling with students at this time but an eerie silence now hangs over the city, although from my study one can still hear the occasional train still rumble across the viaduct and the Cathedral chimes still mark the passing of the hours though, like other houses of worship, it is denuded both of congregation and visitors. On the night of Friday March 20th we listened to a service involving clergy and choir alone held to observe the feast day of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne at which the Dean made pointed reference to the storms and vicissitudes to which the Cathedral had been witness over almost one thousand years. "Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger," declares the author of Lamentations, but in truth there have been sorrows to equal - and exceed - any that we may be currently experiencing.

What is perhaps most uplifting in this time of uncertainty has been the effect of the pandemic on neighbourhood relationships. Here on Western Hill (just west of the railway station) a community has been revitalized. People who had lived in close proximity to one another but had done no more than exchange the time of day - if that - are suddenly connected and households cut off from the wider world by the need to self-isolate have the assurance that healthier neighbours can collect food and medication. Many are for the first time aware of such local initatives as the REfUSE Cafe in Chester-le-Street (in which two local residents are involved), which is currently devoting itself to the provision of food boxes and cooked meals to the most needy in the region. A small but dedicated prayer group is meeting online three times a week to pray for the needs of the community and the wider world. Only this evening, a single rose was left on doorsteps on our road as a gesture of fellowship. Such acknowledgments of our common humanity are perhaps of little consolation to those losing loved ones before their time ("dying suddenly and unprepared" as the Great Litany of the Book of Common Prayer puts it) but they are things to celebrate. What I sincerely pray is that these are not simply fruits of the present hour, but enduring practices that serve to transcend so much of the recent pettiness found not only in politics but in how so many of our institutions - our universities included - operate. Recently one of my prayer partners reflecting on 1 Corinthians 27-28, remarked how the sentiment that God chooses "what is foolish in the world to shame the wise [and] what is weak in the world to shame the strong" reflects our present-day dependence on those professions (cleaning, for example) that receive little commendation in more 'normal' times. Upon such workers - and, of course, on medical personnel - the burden rests heavily and gratitude not only now but in the years ahead would seem to be a fitting response.             

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Godliness with Contentment is Great Gain (one of the assigned lessons for Ash Wednesday)

But godliness with contentment is great gain.
For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.
And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.
But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.
10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
11 But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.
12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.

 1 Timothy 6-12

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Prophet Isaiah and the General Election

From the appointed lesson for Morning Prayer (Isaiah 32:3-8)

Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
    and the ears of those who hear will hearken.
The mind of the rash will have good judgment,
    and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.
The fool will no more be called noble,
    nor the knave said to be honorable.
For the fool speaks folly,
    and his mind plots iniquity:
to practice ungodliness,
    to utter error concerning the Lord,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
    and to deprive the thirsty of drink.
The knaveries of the knave are evil;
    he devises wicked devices
to ruin the poor with lying words,
    even when the plea of the needy is right.
But he who is noble devises noble things,
    and by noble things he stands.

Friday, February 15, 2019

More Church Statistics

With the Anglican Church in North America poised to enter its second decade it seemed opportune to David Goodhew of Cranmer Hall and myself to look at such data as currently exists and provide an overview of where the denomination may be going. Thanks to the Covenant website, you can read our preliminary findings here.

There is much more to be researched and written regarding the most recent expression of the Anglican tradition and it is our hope that this will be realised in the not too distant future. Certainly there is ample scope for a goodly number of doctoral dissertations.

UPDATE, February 16.

For those who wonder about cross-denominational comparisons, comprehensive data on church growth can be found in the ARDA reports for 2000-2010. Below are listed Christian denominations that gained more than 5,000 adherents in this period (Pentecostal churches in red, Holiness churches in green and Eastern Orthodox churches in purple).

The Latter-day Saints gained just under 2 million (+45.5%), while the Assemblies of God (+14.9%), Seventh-Day Adventists  (+29.5%)and Church of God (Cleveland) (+13.9%) gained between 100,000 and 350,000. 

In the 50,000-100,000 range were the Christian and Missionary Alliance(+29.5%), Evangelical Covenant Church (+49.1%), Evangelical Free Church of America (+25.0%) and Vineyard USA (+42.4%).

In the 25,000-50,000 range were the Evangelical-Presbyterian Church (+61.6%), the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (+11.5%), the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (+19.7%), the Presbyterian Church in America (+8.3%), and (unusually) the Unitarian Universalists (+15.8%).

In the 10,000-25,000 range were the Community of Christ (+24.6%), the Pentecostal Church of God (+22.7%), the Baptist General Conference (+8.9%), the Southern Baptist Convention (+0.1%), the Missionary Church (+28.8%), Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (+1.0%), the Mennonite Brethren (+49.0%), the Serbian Orthodox Church in North America (+23.2%), and the Free Methodist Church of North America (+11.5%).

Two other churches gained more than 5,000, the Orthodox Church in America (+10.1%) and the Church of God of Prophecy (+8.0%).

ACNA's recent gains would appear to track those of the Orthodox Church in America pretty closely, with a projected gain of 6,500 in the course of a decade, or a roughly 6% decennial increase (a rate comparable with the Orthodox Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in America and greater than the Southern Baptist Convention)