When you are threatened with Tadcaster.
“Don’t leave it too late to die” counsels the quietly efficient Sister Gilchrist of her patients in the newly-renamed Shirley Bassey ward. Even so her patients persist in regular song and dance routines, in particular “Good Golly Miss Molly’ which brings the house down at the beginning of the second act. Last night Jacqui and I made our way to Edge Hill’s Rose Theatre for the streaming of Alan Bennett’s new play, “Allelujah!” being performed at the Bridge Theatre in London. Set in the geriatric ward of the Beth, an old-fashioned but much loved hospital in the West Riding of Yorkshire, this beautifully acted play muses on the meaning of life when to all intents and purposes life has come to an end. As often in his plays Bennett – himself, now 84 - speaks to us through one of his characters and here he ponders the possibility that “life might still have something to offer beyond the next dollop of turkey mince”. A lot of humour of course – although you need a working knowledge of the different characteristics of Yorkshire towns. “Huddersfield had nabbed the kidney, and Doncaster, of all places, the liver” complains the pompous and self-promoting hospital chairman. And menacingly the patients were threatened with being moved to Tadcaster. That was lost on me. Nevertheless Bennett is angry, very angry – but being English he is quietly-mannered and understated. He is angry with the way we treat our old people, he is angry with the way the NHS is being managed, with our immigration policy, with the way our nation is drifting. Above all, Bennett is angry with life itself, with the cruelty of old age. “How rude”, remarks one of the patients after hearing that his friend has died in the night. “Didn’t he realise there’s a queue?’ However, religion is scarcely mentioned in the play. The disgruntled daughter of the newly admitted patients observes: “She was C of E but with all these vicars being had up she went over to atheism. ” But that’s it Curiously the hospital chaplain never even puts his head around the door but already the cast list is already too full with some 25 players. Bennett used to be a Christian. A lapsed Anglican he was brought up in the Church and became very religious as a teenager, but “has slowly left it over the years.” Nevertheless this national treasure is immensely grateful for surviving, and would like, he says, to still be religious as he was when he was young, “just because you want to say thank you to something sometimes”. Now, like most people in our society, he is agnostic rather than atheist. “I’m leaving it open.” Nevertheless “leaving it open” is not a sure foundation and certainly no rock against the storm of old age. How can you look forward to the future when there is no future to look forward to? I was struck this week by a quote from another Oxford man, C S Lewis. “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” This - of course - flies in the face of human experience once we have passed our allocated three score years and ten – which will be, incidentally, my privilege next month. As Lewis expounds elsewhere, “The continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.” I recall the quiet confidence of Cynthia who faced old age with a assurance of someone unnerved by the ageing process. Her favourite text was the apostle Paul’s stirring words: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16f) Or as Eugene Peterson’s Message translation puts it: “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” Eugene who died just last week was a living testament to this text. Among his final words were “Let’s go.” For a disciple of Jesus is someone who entrusts their whole life to him, whatever may be left (which may not be long) so that we may not fear death. Not because we are inherently immortal but simply because God keeps his promises. His faithfulness is all we need. I read only this morning in my BRF Guidelines that when Jesus calls us to lose our lives – which we will inevitably lose anyway - in order to follow him (Mark 8:35), “this amounts to a promise that those who give up their lives to follow him will be saved from death.” So we may live life to the full whatever our bladder control. As Peterson taught “We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.” Or to quote Bennett along with angels and archangels: “Alleluia!”