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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.