24 May 2020

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the significance of sacrifice in the Easter story and its relevance to today. I have referred for example to the heroic sacrifice of Fr Maximillian Kolbe in Auschwitz in 1941 and Fr Guisippe in Italy this year. From next week we will be moving away from Easter but I want to finish with the story of Eyam in Derbyshire, famous as a “plague village”. This is the story.

In September 1665, a trader arrived in the village with a bale of cloth from London where the plague had already killed many. The damp cloth carried the fleas who were the transmitters of the infection. On November 1st 1666 the last of 260 people died in the village from bubonic plague. Their fate had been sealed months earlier when the entire village made the remarkable decision to quarantine themselves to spare the plague from the nearby towns of Bakewell and Sheffield.

The decision to go into lockdown and social isolation was led by the vicar Rev William Mompesson and his predecessor Rev Thomas Stanley who still lived in the village. In June 1666 with the support and food aid from the Duke of Devonshire the village was isolated and food and supplies left at a nearby well some distance from the village.

Mompesson had told the village that if they elected to stay, they were effectively choosing death. He said that he would do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering and remain with them. He said he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities decimated. The decision to quarantine the village effectively eliminated human to human contact and significantly reduced the spread of the pathogen.

August 1666 saw the highest number of victims including Catherine Mompesson, William’s wife, at the age of 27. In his letters, the vicar wrote, “I am a dying man”. He ministered to the sick and dying and conducted services outside with families standing apart in what we now call “social isolation”. Eventually, the infection ceased and the surrounding communities were spared, at enormous cost to Eyam. William survived.

A present inhabitant of Eyam, who is a descendent of a plague family, said this: “It must have been terrifying, but every single family would have had a strong belief in God and would not have feared death”.

Fear still stalks our country, but what is amazing is the upsurge in online church attendance; prayer; Christian book and resources sales and much Christian-based charitable work for neighbourhoods and needs. Just perhaps this is the spiritual wake-up call we need as a country.

The UK Blessing song has gone viral with well over two million hits. It is taken from the Old Testament words of blessing which I leave with you now: “The Lord bless you and keep you. Make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace. Amen!”

God bless you.