A remarkable display of ecumenical unity gives a germ of hope grounded in reality
Bishop Michael’s pastoral letter for April 2020
At the time of writing, it is not clear how far the Coronavirus will spread, nor how seriously it will impact upon our lives. Undoubtedly, it presents us with a serious challenge, in terms both of public health and of the ways in which we relate to one another. However, it is much less deadly than the plagues which affected our country in past centuries, most famously the Great Plague of 1655.
At that time, Eyam in Derbyshire lay within the Diocese of Lichfield. That beautiful village played a famously heroic part in combatting the spread of the plague, which had been unwittingly introduced to the community through infested samples of cloth brought from London by a travelling tailor. Led by their vicar William Mompesson, the villagers took the selfless decision to ’self isolate’ for more than a year, avoiding all contact with neighbouring villages, their food supplies left at and collected from the parish boundaries. The cost in human lives was heavy, but the result of containment was entirely successful.
Mompesson worked in close collaboration with one of his predecessors and potential rivals, the Nonconformist minister Thomas Stanley, who had been ejected from his living for his Puritan beliefs. In a display of ecumenical unity utterly remarkable for its time, the two clergy sustained the morale, strengthened the will, and re-established the unity of the community through their ministry, gathering their people together in open air services.
Eyam today is a very moving place, with no sites more evocative than its burying places, including the graveyard with the table tomb of William Mompesson’s wife Catherine, who died towards the end of the outbreak. It is deservedly a place popular with visitors, and forms the far end of the Peak Pilgrimage Trail which begins in Ilam, still in our diocese in the Staffordshire Peak.
But this is not a site of historical interest only. Eyam is a striking example of the church’s calling to bring unity in a society faced with forces which could pull it apart. Faced with the mortal peril of the plague, it would have been easy for the villagers of Eyam to divide and scatter; but thanks to the Christian message of faith, hope and love at the heart of their community, they stayed together. We in our time face challenges which could pull us apart - whether those be the threat of pandemic, the political divisions created and exposed in the long arguments over Brexit, the growing contrasts in wealth and health our society, or whatever. But as then, so now, our churches are at the heart of our local communities with a message of hope grounded in the reality of what God has done in raising Jesus Christ from the dead. This Easter, it is my hope and prayer that, like the Christians of Eyam, we can do our part in bringing together a divided society.
Bishop of Lichfield
Image: Eyam Edge - Mompesson's Well - one of the places on the vilalage boundary where villagers exchange money for food with people from nearby villages. Vinegar was used to disinfect coins.
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Alan Heardman - geograph.org.uk/p/866253