It has not been possible to visit St Paul’s Cathedral since its doors were closed on Mothering Sunday. St Paul’s is so associated with London it is not even necessary to name its city. In recent weeks the Cathedral has at least given thought to a permanent memorial to those who have died with Coronavirus. No doubt it will be unveiled when people are back. The present Dean will robe for the occasion in the Dean’s Vestry and close by stands the effigy and memorial of one of his predecessors, John Donne.
Stone’s effigy of Donne is remarkable. The shroud and urn denote death, but in the face is something that denotes Stone’s skill and Donne’s faith. There is a quality of hope in the defeat of death itself, an embodiment of Donne’s own words: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe… one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die”.
The effigy has a remarkable history too, and it is not only Donne’s expression which points to resurrection. Its installation took place in old St Paul’s, on 31 March 1631. Thirty-five years later, as the Great Fire of London reached the Cathedral (its flames fanned by the books stored in the nave, possibly some of Donne’s own), the effigy (it is claimed) was saved by falling, “fired” almost, into the crypt. There it remained until the late 19th century. Its return – resurgam, we might say – to Wren’s Cathedral is not only an association with the old building but a symbol of the importance of Donne’s writings. Perhaps some of the hundreds of thousands of people who pass it each year, demonstrating in their numbers that church buildings do indeed matter, later look up who this man was. They will discover, if they don’t already know, that it was he who wrote “no man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls”.
These famous words are better known than their original context. During the pandemic much has been written about a secular culture’s fear of suffering and death. Matthew Parris in The Spectator elegantly noted that for the British the NHS is now the established Church, hospitals our churches and PPE the robes of its priests. Rainbow posters, often drawn by children, became types of shrines, and the Thursday evening clap a substitute for permitted worship. Where previously people might have entered a church, this activity at least allowed expression of gratitude. The locked doors of churches perhaps encouraged it.
We do not have to go back to the days of Donne however to see how differently we today face risk. The Carry On films have been popular for those staying safely at home in past weeks. Carry On Matron begins with jokes about Asian Flu (sweeping through Britain at the time it was made). It killed around 80,000 people in the UK and there was no lockdown. A nation for whom the Second World War was still a recent memory was made of stronger metal. For our own times sentimentality and turning away from the realities of sending the elderly to be “cared for” by underpaid, often immigrant, workers, has caused much damage. Donne did not see death as a failure of our NHS, but wrote about coming close to it, and it is in writing about this experience that we find his most memorable words.
Recovering from serious illness Donne did what many did, and continued to do (Newman’s ‘Lead, kindly Light’ is a more recent example): he wrote about it. His Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is a spiritual meditation on his experience of coming close to the mystery of death. There are echoes of themes within St Paul’s epistles: we are members of a body, with Christ as head, following where he has led. Sickness brings weakness but as St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12: “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour”. As Donne lay on his sickbed, wondering if his visitors had come to bid him a safe journey, he heard a bell tolling – the term of course when a church bell rings for a funeral or at the time of death – and in his delirium he wondered if the bell was being tolled for him. His devotion is worth quoting (the translation is mine), because it does not begin with how life ends but how the Church celebrates its beginning:
The church is catholic and universal and so are all her actions. All that she does belongs to everyone. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for this child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and grafted onto that body, of which I am also a member. Any death concerns me too; all mankind has one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but is translated into a better language. Every chapter must be translated like this. God employs several translators; some are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered pages again. Like a library in which every book lies open. No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a tiny piece of ground is washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as much as if a great expanse were lost or our own or a friend’s home. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This beautiful meditation offers us a more nuanced response to a virus than “stay at home and protect the NHS”. It reminds us of our connectivity; our common destiny, and in terms of Christianity, our common hope. We are diminished when we see others as unimportant or dispensable.
On Mothering Sunday, when St Paul’s closed its doors, had Donne for a moment glimpsed through his closed eyes, standing as he does in effigy, what might he have thought? As one who heard a bell toll and wondered if his family knew more than they were letting on, he would not blame the current Dean for reacting as he did. In March scientists were telling the government of unimaginable numbers of deaths; new hospitals were planned with a capacity to treat tens of thousands of patients. We now know – as they are quietly closed after admitting only a handful of patients – that the virus slowly entered care homes, unnoticed as people banged their pots on Thursday evenings. The Dean must live in the culture of compliance, and in the end it triumphed over every imperative of the Gospel. The blame for that does not lie with the Dean and Chapter, but much higher up. A rushed Act of Parliament clearly did not take into account human rights, proportionality, and indeed existing laws. In the end churches became classified alongside non-essential shops. We had surely something better to offer?
Many lessons will need to be learnt from past months, indeed years, not least why we seemed to be governed by untested scientific advice and how human rights and mental health, about which society seemed so obsessed, was smothered by a combination of fear and the middle class chatterati retreating to Twitter and their gardens. For the Church of England, it is now vital to remember that none of us is an island. Never again can doors be closed on the advice of archbishops and the enfolding guidance of bishops. The Church of England is a book with many chapters, a library with many books, a body with many parts, and its main is in its parts. Its balance is in the dispersal of power and the power bishops exercised during the pandemic, without, it seems, taking responsibility, was not theirs to take or use. A church is not owned by anyone so it can belong to everyone. Like St Paul’s, it is a place of worship and a place of memory. It is a place to seek answers and wonder. There is no online or screened replacement for what a church is, always will be, and always can be.
The Carry On films are in part a sign of British nostalgia as well as humour. In their unique way they parody a people and nation who did win the war. Perhaps we miss what parody in the end brought down. St Paul’s will carry on. The Church will carry on. But the Carry On world is no more – Dr Prod wouldn’t today be told off for going after the student nurses, he would be in prison. We might be nostalgic for a Church of teas on the Vicarage lawn and bishops who left clergy to it, but clergy moved from their big houses because they simply couldn’t afford to live. Much change has been made to retain a presence in every parish at unaffordable cost. But the Church can only carry on if we restore the balance of power and responsibility set out in the Canons. We should realise that the closure of any church, the loss of every clergy post, forcing clergy to work “house for duty”, diminishes us all. No church is an island.
On Wren’s Cathedral is carved a phoenix, with words from the old Cathedral fixed into the new: resurgam. I will arise. St Paul’s did and so shall we. The Church of England of the future needs to be as cherished, as recognisable and as familiar as St Paul’s itself. For that to happen there needs to be much change, and much that has been lost restored.
This article was written on 23rd May, and hence before recent events; the author now wishes to add that Donne’s words also speak into the current debates on Identity. Ed.
The Rev’d David Ackerman
Vicar of Saint John the Evangelist, Kensal Green