Easter is a moment for nothing less than the reimagining of life. Photo: Getty
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Lucy Winkett: Easter articulates both the catastrophe and the wonder of life in the world

Paradoxes are part of everyday life.

The back of a donkey has a cross in its fur. It’s one of the rather lovely details that come to light at Easter when churches, including ours, hire a donkey for the day to tell the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Children (and adults) get excited at the sight of a donkey in the aisle and a little giddy with anticipation at what it might do, other than walk about. Larry, a donkey from Hackney City Farm, visited us this year (we share him with St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square) and our large palm fronds were waved enthusiastically by young and old alike, together with the palm crosses made by nuns and blessed for the season.

The mild but stormy winter has had memorably terrible effects in Somerset and Cornwall and this year, perhaps more than others, there is a sense of relief at the weak sun opening the buds on trees that makes even urban human beings, usually eyes down on the pavement, look up for a moment to stretch in the warmth.

Irritatingly, for those who like their work diaries predictable, the date of Easter changes each year according to the cycles of the moon. I have never been all that worried by the fact that the Christianisation of a pagan celebration has made Easter a hybrid festival. The shops are full of crosses marked on buns rather than donkeys, and with the current TV obsession with all things culinary, seasonal food is in, even for the irreligious. Eggs have both pagan and Christian resonance: for Christians, a symbol of the stone rolled away from the tomb and the power of newness and life in potential.

The power of potential life also finds expression in the presentation of management accounts – no, really – at this time of year. It’s AGM season for board directors and shareholders alike. Through the work of organisations such as Share Action and London Citizens, these AGMs can be more lively than they used to be. Groups from many different faiths are active in these kinds of activities as they continue to want to turn the tables on the moneychangers. Our church, as a registered charity, appoints accountants just like everyone else, and at the audit meeting someone generally asks whether we are a “going concern”.

This begs rather deep questions about measures of viability and indicators of success. I have long thought that the Church should have an independent quango dedicated to its regulation – perhaps Ofgod – which could swoop in at a moment’s notice to see if the hymns come up to scratch. More seriously, for us as an institution, as for individuals, our bank statements are moral as well as financial documents: what we actually spend our money on reveals our deepest priorities and hopes for the future. It is a bracing experience, as well as a legal requirement, to have them scrutinised.

In walking through the events of Holy Week, Christians confront the betrayal, arrest, torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the mysterious and seemingly seismic change in behaviour of his disciples when they encounter the impossible reality of resurrection.

Through this story of stories, Easter articulates both the catastrophe and the wonder of life in the world. Its colours and contours are far from the pale yellows and gentle, rolling mid-browns of the pastoral scenes in card shops. Easter combines the rawness of a man, stripped and flayed, with the kind of light that makes artists go to the moors at dawn, and which illuminates the gospel accounts of early morning in the garden with Mary Magdalene.

These paradoxes are part of everyday life: the other day, an anonymous prayer was left with us: “. . . for the man who was pulled out of the river in the park this morning . . . I wondered how this world could contain such beauty and simultaneously such misfortune?” The crosses, symbols of the violence of which people are capable, mingle, as they did on the first Good Friday, with the crowds and the celebrating, the buying and the selling, the bargaining of a busy marketplace.

Used over the centuries, sometimes to terrible effect, held aloft at the head of armies, forcing other faiths into submission, the cross is at its most liberating when released from its exploitation as a tool for partisan domination. Its meaning and power lie in its remaining an evocative silhouette from which we instinctively turn away. In recent years advertisers have confronted this same instinct in the ubiquitous posters showing dead teenagers lying in the road who “heard the track but didn’t hear the van”. The posters for Cancer Research are equally hard to face, as the eyes of the woman in front of us say: “It’s too late to save me but you can save yourself.” In the strong shape of the cross, calamitous human suffering is expressed and exposed at exactly the same time as new life is bursting out all around us.

A former dean of St Paul’s Cathedral commented in a newspaper column in the 1950s that people should not imagine they are thinking when they are “simply rearranging their prejudices”. Easter is a moment for nothing less than the reimagining of life. God dies. God lives; the forces of death are overwhelmed by glistening, shimmering, irreducible hope.

At dawn on Easter morning, Christians will gather in the chilly streets, and we will do so here in Piccadilly, to experience something of this reimagining for ourselves. We will light a fire, sing ancient songs, share food, remember that we live in the light of eternity and that things do not have to, and will not – despite our best efforts – stay as they are.

For details of Holy Week at St James’s Piccadilly, London W1, visit: sjp.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.