Friday, 10 April 2020

My Song is Love Unknown - is there anything good about Good Friday?

This is an update of a piece I originally wrote in 2015 and have edited and re-posted once already. I make no apologies for doing so again, not least because the bizarre and unforeseen circumstances in which we find ourselves for Holy Week and Easter 2020 have given more people the time to sit and read.

More importantly, we are all being forced to confront the painful reality that our world is one in which suffering, pain and loss are an inevitable part of our existence, and that if we naively believe that "all will be well", we will inevitably be disappointed. It's a cruel world, and to turn in anger on "God" and say "if there is a God, why does he let bad things happen?" is futile. My concept of God is of an abstract force for good, not some sort of guardian against bad stuff, and for me, Good Friday gives a powerful reminder of that reality.

The combination of a national and international lockdown with the week in which we remember the death of Jesus gives good cause to ponder the meaning of it all, and to question whether religion has any useful part to play in our lives. If you object to religion, it's perhaps best to stop reading now. However, if you can bear with me, you might just come to see that being religious doesn’t mean you’re opinionated, self-righteous, and in-your-face, or that you necessarily have to believe in implausible miracles. 

Today is known as Good Friday, and we would all be forgiven for hollow sarcastic laughter at that thought - not much good about this particular Friday, is there? Good Friday commemorates what was surely one of the most significant events in human history, and a notably horrific event, yet its meaning and significance are increasingly forgotten, at least in our increasingly secular country.

For me as a unitarian Christian, the whole business of Jesus’s death and resurrection is complicated. Many people now pay little attention to the traditional meaning of Good Friday and Easter, yet nobody can deny that the events of what we call Holy Week are as significant as any in the history of mankind. The fact that we are eating hot cross buns today and chocolate eggs on Sunday is a direct consequence of our commemoration of those events 2000 years ago.

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, the events of Holy Week and Easter are pretty hard to deal with. The day on which the hero of our belief system was cruelly and violently put to death by a tyrannical occupying power is called, in English at least, “Good”. As if that’s not bad enough, Christians are then taught to believe that he did it “for their sake” and that he then rose from the dead, thereby defying the one certainty in life: death. According to many, that’s what’s “good” about Good Friday – the idea that Jesus “died to make us good”, to quote C F Alexander’s wonderful hymn, “There is a Green Hill far Away”. My own brand of Christianity really struggles with the idea that someone else had to suffer and die for my sake, and much as I love that hymn, I find the words very hard to identify with, and any notion of Good Friday being a good thing because of an act of self-sacrifice doesn't work for me.

Actually, calling it “Good” is a largely English-speaking oddity. Most other languages have a different term, most commonly some variant on the word “Holy” – in French, for example, it is “Vendredi Saint”. Of the major European languages, only Dutch – which is the living language closest to English in many ways – uses the term “good”: “Goede Vrijdag”. I actually think the German term is pretty apt in terms of telling us what happened: Karfreitag – which means Sorrowful or Suffering Friday.

Whatever you call it, it wasn’t a very good day for Jesus and his followers. They would have taken some convincing, at the end of that terrible day, that what he went through was in any way good. I too struggle to see what’s good about the cruel and horrible death of a patently good man.

As a Unitarian, I certainly don’t accept the idea that we are all inherently sinful and need someone to suffer and die in order to save us. I believe that we human beings are all capable of the most terrible sins, but that’s not the same thing as being sinful, and I certainly believe that our salvation lies in our own hands, not those of an innocent man. So in that sense, there is nothing good about Good Friday for me.

However, I have an aversion to well-meaning attempts to manipulate language to make it match literal truths. After all, Easter is a term derived from the name of a pagan goddess of Spring and fertility, so at one level I’m happy to accept Good Friday as “just a name” for an important day.

Yet the idea that today is a good day because it recognises the good thing that Jesus did for us is not necessarily the correct explanation for the name of the day. Another very plausible explanation comes from the fact that the words “good” and “God” are often interchangeable in the English language. We need look no further than the word “goodbye”, which means “God with you” (God-by-ye) for proof of that. So if we accept this explanation for the term, “God Friday” is perhaps a little easier to accept.

I certainly prefer this explanation: to call it God’s day is much easier for me to accept, in that my own interpretation of God is that it simply means “good”. My concept of God is not as an omnipotent father-figure and creator who ordains all that is, was and shall be, but rather that “God” means all that is good in the world. After all, it is commonly observed that there is only one letter of difference between God and good, and also only one letter of difference between devil and evil. Etymologists rightly point out that this is probably just a neat coincidence, but it certainly suits me to believe that “God” can simply mean all that is good in the world, while “devil” can simply mean all that is bad in the world.

Jesus’s death, and especially the manner in which he was condemned by a fickle and baying mob, was surely the work of the devil – of evil. No different from many other acts of betrayal and violence throughout history. But it is my view that wherever there is evil, good is never far away, and good always has the last word. Time and again, when something dreadful happens in our world, we are left to despair of humankind’s capacity for evil. Yet invariably, and especially if we look for it, there is a response which is good, although you often have to look harder for it, because the media prefer bad news to good news. There are so many examples, but one that always sticks in my mind is the way in which the family of 12-year-old Tim Parry, the boy killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993, used his death and that of 3-year-old Johnathan Ball in the same incident as a catalyst to set up a peace foundation, contributing in no small measure to the eventual end of the IRA bombing campaign and the start of the Ulster peace process. I could quote numerous other stories from throughout history to make the same point. Good – or God – had the last word.

So instead of despairing when something dreadful happens in our world, and bemoaning the absence of God at such times, perhaps we should look for the good – the God – which is always there to respond, to comfort and to heal. And in that respect, Good Friday is aptly named, in that however hard it must have been to believe it at the time, God (or good) was not far away. Good Friday comes just two days before we remember that even if the physical Jesus was put to death, his spirit, his values and his example of how to live a good life continued to shine in an at times dark and evil world, and still do so to this day.

So Good Friday is indeed good in a strange way, if only as a reminder that however evil our world may seem, good is never very far away and always has the last word. And my chosen title, My Song is Love Unknown, sums up all that the life and death of Jesus means in our sad world: “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” seems a pretty good summary of what he was trying to achieve, and to attempt in our own small way to do likewise is the least we can do to honour his memory.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Urged and inspired us, cheered us on our way: Kirkham Grammar School Founders' Day

Kirkham Grammar School Founders’ Day
Today, Wednesday April 1st 2020, at 2:30pm Kirkham Grammar School would have been holding its annual Founders’ Day Commemoration Service at St Michael’s Parish Church.
Founders’ Day is an occasion on which the school community reflects on and gives thanks for its long and distinguished history, whilst remembering in particular those who over the years have been supporters and benefactors of the School.
Holding the service in St Michael’s Church gives an appropriate reminder of the School’s earliest origins and its continuing links with the church: KGS was founded in the Sixteenth Century as a chantry school in the church grounds, in all probability before the stated founding date of 1549. For the next four hundred years, the School was situated next to the Church and the lives and work of the two institutions were firmly intertwined. The School moved to its present buildings in 1910 but has retained close links with the St Michael’s.

The Founders’ Day Service is actually a relatively recent tradition: it was instituted after the Second World War as an end-of-term event perhaps comparable to a modern Open Day, in that it was an opportunity for the School to display to the public something of its life and work and to celebrate all that it stands for. The day used to feature an inspection of the Cadet Force followed by a public parade of cadets to the Church, and the service was followed in the afternoon by a School against Old Boys cricket match.
The first recorded occurrence was on Saturday 26th July 1947, when the then newly appointed Headmaster Mr Dennis Norwood instituted the event as an end-of-term celebration of the School’s heritage. This extract from the newly-formed General School Committee in May 1947 shows the new Headmaster’s plans for the day.

In modern times, Founders’ Day has become a service of thanksgiving, normally held on the last Wednesday of the Spring Term, at which the school community gathers for a short act of worship, with music led by its choir, an address by a guest preacher and an act of thanksgiving for the School’s benefactors read by the Headmaster:
The names of those benefactors whose names are read out are somehow evocative of the school’s long and distinguished history: Thomas Clifton, Isabel Birly, Cuthbert Clifton, Thomas Westby, John Parker, Thomas Langtree, Thomas Hesketh, Arthur Greenacres, Henry Colborne, James Barker and William Grimbaldeston.
These names all have a role in the history of the school which is recorded by history, most notably Henry Colborne, whose bequest left in trust with the Drapers’ Company of the City of London in the seventeenth century led to the longstanding and still flourishing connection with the Drapers. Perhaps the most colourful story relates to Isabell Birly, daughter of a Kirkham alehouse keeper who apparently saved the school from falling into disrepair in the year 1621 with a donation of £30 (then a substantial gift) which she brought to the school authorities in her apron. 
Like so much else in our lives, today's Founders’ Day has fallen victim to the Coronavirus pandemic, along with the whole routine and rhythm of school life: like all schools in the UK and across much of the world, KGS is closed for normal teaching and learning for the immediate future, with pupils and teachers adapting to distance learning, and the school campus deserted other than for a handful of children of key workers. Public examinations have been cancelled leaving the GCSE and A-Level cohorts uncertain of their fate, and deprived of the bittersweet rituals of the end of their school days, with celebrations such as the Fifth Year Party and the Sixth Form Ball postponed to an as yet unplanned future date.
Founders’ Day is a perfect opportunity for all in the present and past school community - pupils, parents, teaching and non-teaching staff - to pause, reflect and give thanks for being part of an ancient, loved and resilient community. In its 470+ year existence, the School has been through difficult times and always emerged in the long term even stronger and wiser, and will do so again.
Let’s all take a moment today to pray for our well-loved school, to give thanks for the leadership and energy being demonstrated by the Headmaster Dan Berry and his staff, as well as the guidance and support of the Governing Body.
I have also always thought that on Founders’ Day, every pupil past and present should perhaps take a moment to give thanks for the financial and other sacrifices made by their own families to give them such a special education. We too easily take our schooling for granted, and I think many Old Kirkhamians will echo the thought that we appreciate and love the School even more as the years go by.
Since 1999, the Founders' Day Service has concluded with the School’s adopted hymn, the much-loved Lord for the Years. We're not singing it today, but here it is on YouTube - watch, enjoy and reflect on those words.

And in case you haven't seen it before, here is a link to a blog post I wrote a few years ago about Lord for the Years.

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