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From Creation to Judgement

Former bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend James Jones reflects on the York Mystery Plays, with extracts performed in the original medieval English by the 2018 cast.

The former Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend James Jones, reflects on the York Mystery Plays, with extracts performed in the original medieval English by members of the 2018 cast.

In medieval times the York Mystery Plays served both as acts of worship and as community theatre. From as early as the 1300s waggons belonging to Guilds of local tradesmen were paraded through the streets of the city as actors performed scenes from some of the great moments in Christian history. The last of the medieval productions took place in 1569, and although they were performed occasionally between 1909 and 1994, it wasn’t until 1998 that they were re-established and performed every two years. 2018 marks 20 years since they began in their current format, again taking place on waggons throughout York.

Forty-eight scripts – by unknown authors – make up the surviving Mystery Plays, and are based on bible passages from Creation to the Last Judgement.

Photograph: York Mystery Plays Credit: Lewis Outing

Producer: Ben Collingwood.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 7 Oct 2018 08:10


BBC Radio 4. It’s ten past eight and time now for Sunday Worship which this morning is led by Bishop James Jones.

+JAMES: Good morning and welcome to the City of York. The Minster, with its exquisitely built walls and windows, is towering above us as we walk through the Shambles, the medieval streets where for centuries people have crowded in to see the Mystery Plays.

Back in 1300 the different Guilds of workers began putting on these plays in the streets not just to entertain the crowds but to lead them in worship.

God’s story was not to be locked up in a building, however beautiful. He was to be found on the streets, in all the hurly burly of the City.

You join us today as we hear the plays spoken in the original mediaeval English by members of this year’s cast.

The plays were originally performed in York on the feast of Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ – and in some places are even called the York Corpus Christi Plays. Our first hymn this morning sings of how Christ our God to earth descendeth.

CD: HYMN: Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy)
Sing, ye heavens

King of Kings and Light of Light
Once hidden deeply from our sight.
Shine in the darkness on this holy day
Through the mystery of these ancient plays.
Thou once to the world didst show Thine heart
Through the Body of our dear Lord.
Assist us now to worship Thee
With mind and soul eternally.

Topping the bill of actors in the Mystery Plays were the Plasterers. They were first up. In the shadow of the Minster which they’d helped build they told the story of God’s Creation. Building was their trade. Creating things was in their blood.

PLAY EXTRACT: The Plasterer’s Play: The Creation of the World to the Fifth Day

CD: MUSIC: Rutter: Psalm 150
The Official Tribute To Her Majesty The Queen's Golden Jubilee

+JAMES: Creator, Creature and Creation
These medieval actors knew all about making things – Builders, Plasterers, Locksmiths and Carpenters. Each in their own Guild they acted out the greatest story ever told – from the Creation of the world to the Day of Reckoning. It was the Builders and the Plasterers who performed the making of the earth.

The voice of God boomed out, “I am Maker unmade” as he moulded the planet; “An isle shall I name which isle shall be earth”.

These actors were all craftsmen who knew the distance between an idea in your mind’s eye and the finished product. They knew all about working with raw materials, about design and honing your skills, and about the joy of completing something you once dreamed of. These Guilds of apprentices and master craftsmen had a great affinity with their Creator. They could well imagine how God had brought into being the whole of Creation.
I once heard a sculptor tell me about the intense bond he felt between himself and his sculptures. How he had poured himself into his creations. It wasn’t hard for him to believe in a Creator and in the Creator’s passionate commitment to his Creation. Nor was it difficult for him to understand why he and we would want to revere our Creator. It was an expression of that bond, that mutual affinity, that love.

CD: MUSIC: Rutter: Psalm 150

You’ll often hear people of faith talk and pray about worshipping God FOR all that he has made as if the earth is but a dish of delights for us to enjoy. But the Bible and especially the Psalms show that we were made to praise God not FOR but WITH all the other Creatures of God. The last line of the last Psalm calls out, ‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’. That means the world of nature, for the word nature comes from all that is born, every creature that breathes.

That little preposition ‘with’ helps us to remember our connectedness with all of Creation, prevents us from exploiting it and encourages us to live in harmony with the natural world. That’s how God wants us to live out being made in the image of the Creator.

But Creation isn’t just a once-upon-a-time act. It is ongoing.

Just as a spinning top needs constant pumping to be what it was made to be so Creation needs a continuous supply of energy to sustain it. God is at work doing that in this very moment. It is part of the bond between the Maker and the Made.

CD: CAROL: Gabriel from Heven-King (Trad)
Yule Riding (York Waits)

He’s also at work through the way he uses the human family to fulfil his own purposes for the world. Mary the mother of Jesus was a great example of that and had a starring role in the Mystery plays. The Angel Gabriel calls her ‘the maiden full mild’ and tells of how central she is to God’s plan ‘to take kind of mankind’, to rescue the world from sin and evil. And just as Mary, an ordinary young woman plucked from obscurity, had a part in the drama of God’s salvation so do we all.

CD: CAROL: Gabriel from Heven-King (Trad)

We praise you O God
Maker Unmade
You have decked
The soil and the sky and the sea
With glory.
We bless you
With everything that has breath
And honour your whole Creation. Amen.

INSERT: Pat Kennedy

+JAMES: Gloves have always played a part in human relationships. You take them off to shake hands and put them on to box an opponent! The Guild of Glovers were a perfect fit for acting out the drama of brotherhood, betrayal and murder – the story of Cain and Abel.

PLAY EXTRACT: The Glovers’ Play: Cain and Abel


+JAMES: Brotherhood, Sisterhood and Friendship
The Guilds that put on these street plays were like Trade Unions – but more so. They were brotherhoods. Skills were passed down through the generations. Brothers, sisters and cousins would learn together and from each other and hand the skills down to the next generation of apprentices. The Guilds were like an extended family.

That’s why of all the scenes in the Bible to choose from for their plays they chose those tales about brotherhood, friendship and -  betrayal; Cain and Abel and Jesus and Judas. Fellowship, friendship and family were the cornerstone of the Guilds and of society, and remain so to this day.

To betray a friend or member of your family struck at the very heart of the Guild. In the play the Angel condemns Cain’s betrayal and murder of his brother Abel in the most scathing way,

“In bitter bondage thou art bound
Out-cast shall thou be for care;
No man shall pity thy misfare
For this affray”.

Cain’s betrayal is a universal tale. It’s the stuff of novels. It can happen in the workplace as well as the family. Cain’s own treachery prefigured the thirty pieces of silver that Judas would earn for his betrayal of Jesus when, with a kiss, he handed him over to the authorities who would kill him with the same lack of truth and justice with which Cain murdered Abel.

CD: MUSIC: Farrant: Call to remembrance
Passiontide at St Pauls

Yet, mystery though it may seem, the purposes of God are not thwarted by these selfish acts so freely chosen.

Throughout my life, like many Christians, I’ve wrestled with how you can reconcile what is called the sovereign will of God with the freedom of human beings to do selfish and even evil things. At the end of the week when we’ve heard the coroner’s report on the Westminster Bridge attacks, and when we’ve heard the first testimonies of the residents of the Grenfell Tower Enquiry, it’s a pressing question. When I was Bishop to Prisons I met a woman who’s totally innocent son had been stabbed to death in the streets – I wondered how any parent could believe in the goodness of God when such bad things happen to your children. But this mother now goes into prisons to tell her story. She still writes to me, sharing letters that prisoners have written to her – how meeting her has begun to change their lives for the good.

The following picture doesn’t cover all the bases but it edged me closer towards, ‘doubting my own disbelief’, as Graham Greene once said.

Imagine a master painter working at his easel transmitting the image in his mind’s eye on to the canvas with his brush and oils. Not only is he a great artist but he is also a wonderful grandfather. Surrounding him as he paints are many lovely but mischievous grandchildren who each have their own designs on the painting. They dab their fingers into the palette of oils and daub the canvass with their smudges. Yet so patient and forgiving a grandfather and so brilliant a master painter that instead of shooing them all away he incorporates their marks into his painting, so that their actions freely chosen ultimately add depth and texture to creation of his vision.

CD: HYMN: Lord of the dance
Songs of Sunshine

We humble ourselves before you O God
For we have erred and strayed like sheep without a Shepherd.
According to your steadfast love and abundant mercy
Blot out our transgressions and cleanse us from our sins
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

+JAMES: The Gospels are very restrained in the way they depict the crucifixion of Christ. But there was something both apposite and shocking to ask the Guild of Butchers to act out the brutal scenes of the crucifying of Jesus.

PLAY EXTRACT: Butchers’ Plays: Crucifixion of Christ

+JAMES: The Gift Of All Gifts
Short reflection on the crucifixion by Bishop James…

One of the other stories in the mystery plays is Abraham and Isaac. It’s a truism but it needs repeating that we live in a more enlightened age. Certainly more so than the world of the early chapters of the Bible where women and children were the possession of men. There are always lessons to be learned from other cultures, both past and present, but there also aspects that today we can say were categorically unethical. Abraham’s attitude to killing his child was of his time and wrong.

Yet the medieval mystery plays made much of the story of Abraham being willing to go to the lengths of killing his son Isaac to prove his devotion to God. They saw in it a parallel and a parable of the sacrifice that Jesus made.

CD: HYMN: Where you there when they crucified my Lord?
Ex Cathedra

Both stories are heart rending. They share similar strains. And one of them is about giving, and about the lengths that human beings will go and give of themselves for the sake of others.

It is, of course, in the giving and in the gift of Christ that Christians find the true character of God. It’s in his nature to give. He gives of himself in Creation, In Christ, on the Cross and in Communion with ourselves. We believe in the Giving God. To give is to love; to love is to give. And we ourselves are most like God, most like Christ, when we find ourselves giving.

If the gift is the most revealing of our true self then so also is grief. The more we have loved someone the more will we grieve for them. And it is on the cross of Christ that we see both gift and grief. The gift of God the Father and the grief of Mary his mother.

CD: HYMN: Where you there when they crucified my Lord?

O Generous God
And giver of all good things
We thank you for revealing yourself to us
In the gifts that you have so freely bestowed.
Assist us to give as you have given
And in so doing find the truth about ourselves
And the blessing of giving that you have promised
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

PLAY EXTRACT: The Mercers’ Play: The Last Judgement (first part)

+JAMES: The Mercers were the Merchants and were the richest of all the Guilds. Bearing in mind what Jesus had to say about money and the dangers of wealth there was more than a touch of irony in casting them for the climactic scenes of the Last Judgement.

PLAY EXTRACT: The Mercers’ Play: The Last Judgement

+James: Crisis In The Environment
“Now is fulfilled all my forethought”, so speaks God on the Day of Judgement at the end of the Cycle of Mystery Plays.

When God made the earth he declared it to be very good. But he didn’t say it was perfect! Creation, to use a modern phrase, is ‘work in progress’. It’s not finished. It’s not yet been perfected. One day. But not yet. Just as all the Guilds had a part to play in the telling of the story so we all have a part to play in the perfecting of Creation.

This is dramatically portrayed in the Mercers Play that enacts the Last Judgement with Jesus seen standing between the Good Souls and the Bad Souls.

“Ye cursed caitiffs, kin of Cain
When suffering sow ye manifold
Not one of you a sorrow slaked
And so forsook me, young and old.”

These sorrows and sufferings are spelt out by Jesus in that famous parable when God separates the sheep from the goats. They have an eerily modern ring to them. The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner.

READING: Matthew 25:37-40
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

I’m struck by how these different groups correspond to the consequences of the environmental crisis now blighting the earth – famine, drought, destitution, disease. Of course, these things have been with us since the Flood. But they’re clearly aggravated by the changing climate and continual conflicts.

Crisis is the Greek word for judgement. It’s a moment of truth when you see what you’ve sown. The plays were like holding a mirror up to the audience to challenge and to change the way people lived.

Coming alongside people in Africa and Central America and in India where droughts and floods have claimed the lives of children has made me more conscious of my own responsibility. I can no longer expect to say to God on that Day of Reckoning, “when did I see You hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?” I’ve seen him. And it is a truly dreadful sight. It changes your life.

CD: MUSIC: At the round earth's imagined corners (Burgon)
Burgon Choral Music

Grant us O Lord
The sight to see beyond our human vision
So that we might behold in the least, the last and the lost
The face of Christ
Who is the image of your glory.

Holy Jesus,
Child of Adam
Child of God
Come in glory
And renew
The face of the earth.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

CD: HYMN: Now thank we all our God (Nun danket)
John Rutter – Te Deum, and other church music

+JAMES:  May the Fire of Christ consume all indifference to God
  The Light of Christ illumine our vision of God
  The Love of Christ enlarge our longing for God
  The Spirit of Christ empower our service to God
  And the Blessing of God Almighty,
  Creator, Lover, Giver and Judge
  Be upon you and all whom you love
  This day and for all eternity.


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