by the Right Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
Minnie Louise Haskins, who wrote these words in 1908, does not often appear in anthologies of great English poetry. Her poem was privately published in a collection called “The Desert”, and would almost certainly have been forgotten, if it were not for King George VI who used them in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to (what was then) the British Empire.
At the end of December 1939 the “phony war” had been running for almost three months. War had been declared, but nothing seemed to be happening. The bombs had not yet begun to fall on the UK. Dread and threat were certainly in people’s minds, but it was an invisible dread and a threat chiefly existing in the imagination. To that dread and threat the King’s quoting of Haskins’ poem spoke clearly, and the words became immensely popular, iconic and inspirational. They are carved in stone at the entrance to the George VI memorial chapel in Windsor.
At first sight it’s not obvious that the King chose the right words. Anxious people in dark and complicated times long for a known way. And there are always those who will insist that they have a safe light – if only people will follow them blindly.
This is certainly true this year, and indeed in the past few years.
The ongoing strength of political populism in the West flows from this anxiety, as people look for strongmen in whose booming words they can lose their own voice. So does the growth of movements based on “alternative facts” such as the antics of the President of the United States and his supporters in the weeks after the election there, or the stridently anti-rational lockdown protests seen around the world, including here in Liverpool. Empty promises of certain light, the hate that says it will cast out fear, all detached from the world’s reality.
Meanwhile Minnie Haskins, and King George, reached for a deeper wisdom, and people in 1939 were inspired by it, and I think we should be again. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
For me there’s another dimension to this, which goes beyond Haskins’ poem.
Walking by faith is the way things work, and is in particular the calling of the Church; and in the end the way becomes clear as we walk – together. We are not called to a vacuous smoothing-out of the complexities of the world, but to a process of courageous contribution and mutual enriching, so that the wisdom of God, as shared with a diverse community, may become clearer for us.
God’s wisdom becomes clearer as each person takes the opportunity to listen, and to speak, and to listen again. In short it becomes clearer through a diversity of voices and a mutual discerning.
In the political arena we have seen this discerning process in action – sometimes despite the best efforts of a simplistic and over-optimistic boosterism. Scientific advice and the values of human life and flourishing have (eventually) shaped policy. Of course this policy has had to be nimble, and to steer quickly and sometimes erratically by a flickering light. But there is no known way, and together the world is moving in the dark.
As I look back on the year and on the world, it seems to me that most of the political failures in dealing with the pandemic have come from a willed disregard of corporate wisdom, and from pretending there is a clear light. To feel our way in darkness and in faith is not heroic; but in the end it is the way the world works, and is working.
The same is true for the conversations within the Church on the matters that vex us. As an example, “Living in Love and Faith” is a complex and steady process which seeks to listen to many voices, including those (the diverse lived-out voices of LGBTI+ people) which have hitherto been excluded from the room.
Together we are seeking to discern a future for love, in faith. The bright lights and the booming words of a contentious certainty continue to attract some – but for most of us the way of mutual and gentle discerning is the way the church works, and is working.
Whether in the world of politics or of organised religion, this is a slow and a modest way to proceed.
Those who promise a simple light will continue to criticise it, indeed with an increasing shrillness. But for me Minnie Haskins and King George VI knew a thing or two, and I shall walk with them, into a future which is shrouded in darkness and filled with surprise but which is nonetheless assured by the presence of God.
In 1939 the King ended his quote from Haskins’ poem with the line I quoted: “That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” But the poem goes on in words that make sense in the context of the Christmas story, the story of the Incarnation, and which I commend to all Via Media readers as the year turns and as our hopes gather for 2021:
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.