Foot and mouth: latest news from a West Country parish

 Exmoor is still on the edge of an infected area and normality and abnormality jostle each other. The National Park is beginning to put together walks along quiet country lanes. In those same lanes, the subtle shades of abundant primroses and wood anemones contrast sharply with the stridency of red signs down the road, proclaiming a foot and mouth infected area, and the vibrancy of yellow on the Moor edge warning about closures. A local hotel has shut, perhaps not to reopen. Part-timers are being laid off from local shops. The laundry has had to go on very short time. There were a few visitors at our Sunday Mass, a real sign of Spring, but the streets of the town are quiet. At the Vigil Mass a regular whispered the news a confirmed case of the disease barely ten miles away - diagnosis that morning - slaughter in the afternoon - grief still to register. Earlier I had driven across the edge of the moor, the spectacular view of across Devon marred by distant smoke. I met one car in the nine mile drive. The abundance of ponies and deer reflected the diminished traffic. Foot and mouth has seeped into some strange corners of the mind. Visiting a parishioner in intensive care in the local hospital, and therefore being obliged to don plastic apron and rub my hands with alcohol, I found myself looking for straw across the doorway. I reminded myself that this was a hospital. We watch the television news with greater care. How near is the disease? There is a feeling that we are living in what one might call 'in between times'. The disease is here but is has yet to come. I pondered the irony of facing it during Lent and Easter when the obvious season must surely be Advent. Without wishing to trivialise the disease, I suggest our perception of it has something in common with our understanding of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is here but the Kingdom is still to come, a paradox so long lived that it is hard to grasp the reality. We need the words of the Advent hymn ' Sleepers Awake' to remind us that we are always on the threshold of the Kingdom when Christ may return at any moment, and that we must be prepared. The between-times are a prelude to the end-time. And what of preparation? As I write, people are beginning to point to lessons unlearnt from 1967, while early responses to the present outbreak are being criticised. Slowness in culling and disposal, shortage of vaccine, together with the appropriateness of vaccination, make headlines. The united front of government and opposition is fragmenting. Perhaps it is symptomatic of an extended crisis. Is it significant that in the same week, articles have appeared in church press about the declining use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and of the continuing disunity of the church? Coincidence is a more plausible explanation (the season of penitence combined with an Anglican response to One Bread One Body) but I cannot help thinking that there is a sign there for those who will see. When plagues or earthquakes appeared in the past they led to a Millennium response. That is wrong. We do not know the day or the hour, but at Easter when we bless the candle we shall remind ourselves of Christ, the Lord of Time. Foot and Mouth may remind us of the fragility of life and help us to grasp the concept of that which is here and yet to come, the Kingdom for which we pray daily in the Our Father.

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