It seems that these endless weeks of bounded freedom, the only name I can think to give to this period of lockdown, are drawing to a close – for the time being at least.
There will have been days which literally defy description and there will be have been others which have passed like a dream, with day and night merging into a single colourless continuum. We have been thrown back on ourselves and on our own emotional resources. For many people, these resources are now at a very low ebb. Our faith, if we have one, may have been severely tested through depression or loneliness, through disorientation and a strange sense of uprootedness and disorientation, perhaps.
Faith is nurtured through relationship, through human exchange at every level. For Christians it is also nurtured through coming together to seek God on a weekly basis, with whatever words and actions we are given, or that have been handed to us by tradition. Despite everything that is being done online, some of us miss our Sundays, the day that punctuates the week in this rather formal way. We miss our church and its regular pattern of worship and ministry. We miss the communion of it, communion through the sacrament if we have that, and communion with one another at a very real level, real in the sense of being physically present to one another in a shared space that has been used for this purpose for generations.
Church is a place of rootedness. But people are mistaken when they think of church as a sterile environment stuck in the past. If roots are simply ‘stuck’ a plant or tree cannot live. Similarly, if prayer and worship are no more than habit, if it is emotionally stuck or out of touch with people’s lives today, it will not be a channel of life. But if prayer is genuine, if it consists of everything a person has to bring to the moment, worship will be genuine too. It will also be rooted, not boring, repetitive or trite, but sourced in the unchanging nature of God and rooted in the richness of our individual lives.
God does not change and yet God moves, within us and around us. Churches exist to signal this particular reality that we experience together. In the context of a church service, we are present to God from what can only be described as our real self, the place of no pretence where we meet the God who knows us and loves us as we are. We are also among people we trust, or at least we should be. The purpose of church is to affirm and celebrate this rootedness in God and in one another, to celebrate a trust between people that has accumulated across the generations and throughout the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
The other name for this is communion, the communion of ‘saints’. Saints are not perfectly holy individuals. They are flawed human beings, past and present, who recognise their need for Christ and try to love one another in that place of need. Some of them will come together on a Sunday and do this in church.
The responsibility for celebrating this communion, or union of people at the deepest level of meaning in God, lies with those who minister the church service. They can be ordained or lay, depending on the tradition of individual churches. Either way, it is a particular calling and one which extends beyond the confines of any one parish or church building.
As someone who is called to serve the Church in this way, I have been giving some thought to how those of us who share in this calling can best respond to it, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?
I am getting a sense of what this might be from the relationships that have been formed or strengthened up and down the lane where I live. It is more than a sense of people looking out for each other, or being more friendly than usual – notably when it comes to negotiating one or other of the few passing places we have along this lane. We smile and make eye contact with the person who gives way, which is not something that always happened in the past. Courtesy is very much part of our shared life these days. We are not in such a hurry as we were. There is deeper communion between us as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic.
Being in deeper communion with one’s immediate neighbours, as a result of our shared experience of lockdown, says something about what it means to be the Church. We are in fact being the Church when we practice courtesy to one another. But there is more to it than that. For the Church, courtesy is a graced action. It comes from having spent time engaging with the source of all courtesy and kindness, with engaging deeply in God. The isolation and solitude of the past months have meant that many of us have had to re-learn the habit of dropping down into silence in a way that sees silence as the source of all goodness, and of life itself. There have even been times, during these months, when silence literally ‘commands’ our attention.
To pay attention is to respond to a command from God to listen deeply to the world and to our immediate surroundings. It invites us to draw people we know into the presence of God, from within our own deepening encounter with silence and with whatever we wrestle with in moments of real solitude. But we also do this in solidarity with our neighbours, naming the ones we know, or simply holding the ones whose names elude us in the ambit of God’s love. This is what the Church of the future will consist of, a body of people who have learned how to hold others in God.
Despite lockdown, some figures suggest that there has been a marked increase in interest in Sunday church services over the past weeks. On one particular Sunday the internet briefly collapsed under the sheer weight of Christian prayer, teaching and worship. This is interesting because there are many parish clergy who have felt lost and disorientated over these past months, despite some of the wonderfully imaginative outreach that has been effected through the internet and despite the pastoral sensitivity and vision of some of our bishops. It has been a wilderness time for them.
The Church, like many people, is enduring a wilderness period, not only because its doors have been closed, and may remain so for a while yet, or because collective worship has not been possible, but because we are being invited, perhaps, to deepen into this sense of loss and absence, into the wilderness, and, what is more difficult, to not be in too much of a hurry to emerge from it.
As with lockdown itself, I believe we clergy need to emerge slowly and cautiously from the wilderness we may have been experiencing. We need to own it fully. Owning our own wilderness enables us to minister in the fullest sense to the emptiness and loss which many people experience in their lives, irrespective of Covid. These feelings of loss can be attributed to specific crises, of course, but for the most part they constitute a general state of mind, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a lethargy of the soul. If the Church, and its ordained ministers in particular, are to speak to this soul sickness, and thereby proclaim the good news of the Gospel, those of us who do so in an official capacity will need to re-learn acceptance, acceptance of who and what we are before God (and that takes some doing) and acceptance of the world and the Church itself, as they are before God. In the eyes of God, both the Church and the world are fundamentally good and deeply loved.
Herein lies the paradox of the Church’s prophetic vocation. We are to know ourselves as loved by God, and capable of goodness, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the evil and suffering that is perpetrated in the world and within the Church’s own bounded structures. Holding these two opposites together, the capacity for good and evil, becomes a way of life, not just something we do when we feel up to it, or can find the time, but as the guiding knowledge that we are called to live by.
We also do it in solidarity with previous generations. We inherit both the good and the consequences of the evil that may have begun through their actions, in both the Church and the world. We are in solidarity with the BLM movement now, because injustice and racism continue, but we also bear the burden of slavery itself which, lest we forget, continues, as people are trafficked all over the world into various forms of modern enslavement. We carry the burdens of previous generations, and of our own, but we do all this from within a place of inner silence which is not closed in on itself, but open to the possibilities of redemption and of forgiveness. We do it from a place of knowing that all that we are holding is held in God, as we ourselves are held.
Those called to the ordained ministry will need to have learned to know themselves from within that silence and see it as their ‘default position’, the place or ‘locus’ of understanding to which they continually return in order to rightly understand and live out their calling as deacons, priests and bishops in God’s Church. Lockdown may have helped some of them begin to face the realities of this calling, the seeming loss of direction and purpose, the irrelevance of status and ‘job description’, and of pointless and energy sapping meetings and committees. Without this time-consuming activity, some of them will be feeling marginalised, even redundant. They may even be questioning their calling. This is hardly surprising, since these very skills were probably being sought for when they were first selected, and subsequently trained, for ordination.
But the good news is, that much of what we clergy have become accustomed to, and even comfortable with, is not God’s idea of what it means to be the Church. In fact, without all these distractions from our true vocation, during these wilderness months, the Church’s life is only now just beginning. We can be confident then, that as long as we love one another and God’s world from within that often lonely and silent place, and work together for healing, as the apostle Paul wrote to the clergy in Corinth, we ‘do not accept the grace of God in vain, for now’ he says ‘is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:3)