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During the interregnum (the gap while the Rector’s post is vacant)
Reader Mike Bunclark writes:
Sometimes inspiration comes unexpectedly and unsought. So it was when Anne and I went to Sheffield and the Peak District in August for a short break.
One day, seeking nothing more than a leisurely day out, we searched the pages of the National Trust guide for properties in the area and came up with Eyam Hall, somewhere we’d not visited before - so off we went. We were surprised to find a village with an amazing history - and a story of incredible self-sacrifice. Eyam is sometimes called the plague village because of an event which happened in the 17th century.
The plague, which was rife in parts of Britain, came to Eyam in the summer of 1665, possibly in a bale of cloth brought up from London. The people in the house where it came to caught the disease and died in a short space of time. Before long, others had caught the disease and also died after a short and very painful illness.
The infection spread rapidly throughout the autumn, slowing down in the winter only to return with greater vigour in the spring and summer, reaching a peak in August when 78 people died in the month. In the fourteen months the danger lasted, it claimed 260 lives out of a population of around 800. But it was how they dealt with the disease that was extraordinary.
The local rector, the Revd William Mompesson, and his predecessor, led a campaign to prevent the disease spreading outside the village to the surrounding area. This involved the people of the village voluntarily agreeing to isolate the village and quarantine themselves, relying on being supplied with necessary provisions by people outside. There is still on the outskirts of the village a location called the Boundary stone, where traditionally, money was placed in small holes for the provisions which those from the local area brought for the villagers.
To control the infection within the village they agreed first to bury their own dead, close to their homes, rather than in consecrated ground, in the belief that unburied corpses were a major hazard in the spread of the pestilence, so that speed was essential, and secondly to worship in the open air, where it would be possible to maintain corporate worship without being in close proximity with their neighbours and thus expose themselves to danger.
As a result of these actions of great self-sacrifice, the disease did not spread beyond Eyam but almost a third of the villagers died. Interestingly some of the villagers who were in contact with those who had the plague, did not catch it, apparently because they had a chromosome which gave them protection. But they weren’t to know that. I wonder how many of us would be prepared to make a similar sacrifice today?
On a happier note we came across a contemporary example of self-sacrifice. Our visit to Sheffield coincided with the Special Olympics GB National Games which were being held there and a number of competitors, coaches and family supporters were staying in our hotel. We would see them setting off each morning for the day’s events and then hear them re-living them back in the hotel in the evening.
Over four days 2600 athletes with learning difficulties took part in 26 individual and team sports, supported by 800 coaches and over 7000 family and friends, in an event run by a team of over 200 officials and 1000 volunteers.
Televised interviews with competitors and families told similar stories. Stories of self-sacrifice on the part of the families, devoting time, money and energy into supporting their athletes to enable them to experience the joy of sport and the exhilaration of competition. Stories of inspirational clubs, run and coached by small armies of dedicated volunteers. All geared to only one thing - the benefit of the members.
And we were able to eavesdrop on some of them. We left them with feelings of admiration but also of gratitude that we had been able to observe and experience true selflessness if only from a distance.
At a time when Trump politics and other Nationalist groups are avowing Our Nation First or put more simply, Me first, let us thank God for examples of self-sacrifice and of loving one’s neighbour wherever we find them. Whether that be in the story of the plague village of the 17th century, or in the Special Olympics of today, or wherever.
Thanks be to God.
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