Thought for the Week – Medicine Unboxed

Lucy Winkett shares her experience of attending ‘Medicine Unboxed’, a series of events asking questions of medicine and society, of their shared responsibility of care in the world.

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I attended an event at Kings Place near Kings Cross this week which was a remarkable reflective gathering bringing together of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Curated by an oncologist called Sam Guglani, it is in a series called ‘Medicine Unboxed’.  The founder writes this about the series:

A line of poetry lasts some 3 seconds, according to the poet Don Paterson. He calls this “the length of the human moment”. I love the idea of it, paper and words amounting to time and consciousness. And I think of it now typing the lines of a sonnet that opened the first Medicine Unboxed event: “What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you dwell?”.   These lines by William Shakespeare floor me still with their beauty and tenderness, their urgency—and maybe too because they ask for me a central question of medicine. And I am struck again by how literature and medicine, science and art, ask the same thing—who we are, what the stuff of us is, and what it means to live and die.

And so I found myself in an auditorium with maybe 200 people in the audience, as part of a series of speakers, poets, scientists, medics, musicians, all with something to say about Matter.  I had been invited as a priest to talk about ASH.  I had planned to talk about the ceremonial meaning of ash in Christian liturgy, and offer some reflections on the political meaning of being ashed (that it insists human beings are part of the earth, dust we are and to dust we shall return, and that we are equal before God).

I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the sequence.  The novelist, writer and activist Kit de Waal spoke powerfully about SKIN,  telling some powerful and confronting stories about going to parties in the USA as a student, and finding a brown paper bag on the door. If her skin was the same colour as the bag or lighter, she could go in. If it was darker, she was not welcome.

The speaker before me was Peter Apps, Deputy Editor of Inside Housing. His topic was FIRE. He spoke powerfully and with utter devastation about the lessons that have to be learned from the Grenfell Fire, not least of which was that the public sector staff were overworked and underfunded, so that the proper care and precautions weren’t taken in the months and years leading up to the fire.  His critique, based on the Grenfell Tower Enquiry, was devastating.

I realised again the power of ritual, that the symbolic meaning of ASH had terrible resonance with the bodies that were reduced to ash by that appalling fire.

Throughout the day, an astonishingly accomplished and talented tabla player Gurdain Rayatt offered breathing space and time for the audience to process what they were hearing and witnessing.

It is not an event I will forget in a hurry, and has made me think deeply about the multi-disciplinary potential of reflecting on life’s big themes.

In the church, we often talk about inclusive community, or inclusive church.  Until everyone is in the room, until everyone finds a place at the table, until all voices can be heard and understood, inclusion means little.

The gathering that I was  privileged to take part in has renewed my resolve and commitment to build imaginative, inclusive, influential community here at St James’s, as a response to the call of the gospel, but as a commitment to a better future for this city, parish, and all of us.