Times are strange. I don’t need to elaborate on that statement. The closure of the UK’s churches even if only temporarily, is something that none of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. Sally has said recently that, even though we are now in the Easter season, somehow her experience still feels in many ways like Lent. I expect she echoes the sentiments of many. There is real grief about the lack of gathering. We miss friends and families, corporate singing, liturgy. We miss laughing and even crying together. We miss the Sacrament. Indeed, this last point is true even for the clergy; for, although many of us still celebrate communion on behalf of the whole Church, the Sacrament was given to us by Christ as a corporate act, and without that corporate gathering, it feels strange. It feels not-quite-right. We are all longing for the moment when we can gather again and say “peace be with you” face to face. I suspect that as we embrace each other then, we will have a far more profound appreciation of one another’s presence than we had before.
And yet — without wishing in any way to downplay the seriousness of the times— I remain grateful for so many small items of good news that trickle down. It is heartening and humbling to know that not only are members of the East Newport and Wentwood Ministry Areas tuning in online to worship together, but many are telling us afterwards: “I’ve been to church with you!” It has been touching to see members of our congregation — some of whom have never even had a computer before — learning new skills and joining us as we reach out to one another. It has been exciting to see numbers of views and interactions that suggest that our churches are suddenly reaching many who may never have attended services — people who are suddenly and unexpectedly reaching out for hope, and finding a hand reached out in response. It makes me proud to see the clergy working hard, each in different ways, to say to the world: “The Church is still here!” There is a learning curve here for clergy and laity alike and people have stepped up.
As is always the case, even in more normal times, the clergy do not and cannot do this alone. There is no way for me to track how many small phone calls are made, how many small acts of kindness (even from an appropriate social distance!) are done, person-to-person amongst the members of our congregations. But Sally and I know that they are going on; we have glimpsed them, and we’re sure that what we’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Small groups are meeting and praying by video-conference. Friends are quietly checking on one another and ensuring that basic needs are met and help offered. People are finding new ways of accomplishing old tasks. People are rising to the challenge of reaching out just that little bit further to one another than they had to before. People are tuning in and genuinely engaging with our reflections online — and, gratifyingly, they are crossing former church boundaries to do so. (It’s good to see, for example, how many people from St. John’s tune in regularly to Linda’s feeds on the St. Andrew’s page — and, my word, she’s been working like a champ!)
This is all a long way of saying that new and fresh possibilities are springing up amongst us. When nominated for the presidency in 1988, at his acceptance speech, George H.W. Bush called for America to become “a kinder, gentler nation”. Although I’m not sure that came to pass — and perhaps still hasn’t yet — the things that I’m seeing across British society today, in response to a common threat, gives me hope that we may indeed become a bit better than we were before. Likewise, what I see in Church gives me some real hope that the Spirit yet stirs within us to call us to better things when eventually we emerge from our cocoons. For the early Church, Easter was not a one-off: Christ rose; he appeared here and there to his people. Confused and awed, they doubted, then came to believe, one by one. Stories spread in hushed tones, mouth to mouth. Then Pentecost came, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and a scattered, fearful band became brave and thrived. We have mourned the loss of our Holy Week and Easter services this year — rightly so. But perhaps, in another way, we have actually lived and are living the Easter and Pentecost story more fully than ever we have before. The waiting is a part of it. Dawn breaks, and Lent falls away, but perhaps only bit by bit as the sun rises, and new life emerges once more.
photo credit: gnuckx, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons