Christopher Smith and Bella are relaxing in front of the TV
Creature of habit that I am, and having little to rush out for in the evenings nowadays, I tend to do an hour or so’s work at my desk after vespers, and land on the sofa with a glass of wine at about half past seven. And flicking the telly on, I have come across an American programme, just half an hour each weekday, called The Joy of Painting, presented by an artist called Bob Ross. He started the series in 1983 and recorded the last one in 1994 before his death the following year. Some bright spark at the BBC must have been looking for something cheap to fill time, and bought the lot. The UK screening began in April. They made 403 episodes, and Bob Ross completes a painting in each one. They are all landscapes—very clearly American landscapes—and the style isn’t quite me, but if he’d presented me with one, I’d certainly have made space for it on my wall.
The joy of The Joy of Painting is its gentle, relaxing quality. You can do something else at the same time, like put dinner on, or check the news, and keep looking up to see the picture taking shape. Mr Ross has a voice like honey which somehow gives one confidence that things are better than they seem. And my cat, Bella, likes it, and stretches out on the arm of the sofa, perhaps wondering whether the rapid strokes of the brush are in fact the scurrying movements of mice.
Bella, it must be said, has had a good lockdown. I hate that word with a vengeance, but we’re stuck with it now, even though it is an American term for placing prisoners in solitary confinement. For Bella, these months have meant more attention, regular meal times, and more Dreamies. The latter, by the way, are a great delicacy if you are a cat; I worry that they are addictive, given the speed at which she hurtles through the house when she hears the tin rattle. And these ‘interesting’ times have introduced online meetings to the house, offering cats additional opportunities to draw attention to themselves. Bella seems to know that she will always have an audience if she jumps onto my desk and stares at the computer and therefore into the camera. Perhaps we ought to take a cat to ‘in person’ meetings when we get back to normal. They can be good at easing the tension!
So my little tabby cat has played her part in keeping me going, even as we find ourselves under ever-varying regulations. Maybe they will be a little less intrusive by the time you read this: we were promised an end of ‘lockdown 2’ by early December. But in some ways, it feels as though we have been ‘locked down’ since March. Opinion will vary among our readers as to the efficacy of these various restrictions, but I presume that we will eventually need to learn to live with our latest coronavirus, and I wonder whether we oughtn’t to be asking whether the ‘cure’ at the moment isn’t worse than the disease.
But whatever the state of play by Advent 2, I have been pleased to see some pushback from the bishops against the banning of public worship for a second period, which started (rather painfully) on Remembrance Sunday. This time, rather than rolling over and asking the government to make us lock our doors and ban clergy from their own churches, the bishops have questioned the need to stop people from going to mass. And they kept the pressure up for a while – it was a whole week before they ran up the white flag – and several of them made the point that there is value in the sacramental life which makes it not just a leisure activity, but something which is necessary rather than optional for us.
That’s progress, but I still marvelled at the fact that none of the Lords Spiritual spoke in the debate on a Private Notice question in the House of Lords on 3rd November. The question was from Lord Moylan, and asked the relevant Minister of State (Lord Greenhalgh) whether the government would ‘produce the evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship in places of worship’. Supplementary questions were asked by ten noble Lords, none of whom was a serving bishop. Peers who ask follow-up questions are not selected by ballot, whatever you may have heard on the rumour-mill, and it is inconceivable that a serving bishop would not have been heard on the matter. Thank heavens for the Bishop of Winchester, who put the point to the Leader of the Lords the following day.
But no evidence for the ban has been forthcoming, and I find myself once again reflecting on the sad fact that, the way we live now, religious observance is no longer of any value to the state. What is the point of pretending that we are a Christian country when churches are classed with leisure activities for the purposes of closure whilst garden centres are regarded as essential? Of course, churches continue to be permitted to do things that the state regards as useful, like ‘to provide essential voluntary services or urgent public support services’: so church folk are deemed fit to run a food bank, but not actually to go to mass.
And we will carry on doing those things because there is always an extra mile to go, and always a cloak to be given away. We must do them because they spring from our faith, from our life in the Body of Christ, rather than because we hope for any secular reward. None will be forthcoming.
That’s enough. Bob Ross is on the telly in ten minutes, and the cat has come to fetch me.