Mothering

In a Strange Land

In a pub quiz at some point in the future, the host will ask, ‘in what year did the Tokyo 2020 Olympics take place?’ At the time of writing, the answer looks like it might be 2021, but that’s still uncertain. In a future church quiz, the host will ask, ‘in 2020, which was the first church service to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?’ The answer to that is the one that was planned for Mothering Sunday on 22 March 2020.

In other words, it’s been nearly a year since the Prime Minister took the remarkable step of announcing that churches would have to close. The Church of England followed this by confirming that church buildings would be closed for services, including weddings and baptisms, and that funerals would only be able to take place at crematoria or at the graveside, not in church buildings.

A lot of legislation, guidance, and instructions, followed. At times it seemed as though the advice changed daily, and we got used to waiting for the next announcement from the Prime Minister and his advisors, followed by statements from the Church about how to put all this into practice. At first, the new rules were in place for a period of three weeks, and here we are, a year later, having been through various levels of lockdown and restrictions. We might think of this experience as one of ‘exile’. Like the psalmist, lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who asks

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137.4

We have been living in a strange land. It’s difficult to get this past year into perspective. We very quickly got used to describing things as ‘unprecedented’ (although, as I have noted elsewhere, humanity has lived through many existential threats in its history. It’s just that we modern folk in the developed world had got used to a relatively secure existence.) We took to online worship and discovered new ways of doing things. No one had heard of Zoom, and now here we are, Zooming away to our hearts’ content. (Recently, during a streamed service of Compline for Lent, my Zoom crashed and had to be restarted in the middle of the prayers. Sadly, I missed the opportunity to announce that ‘normal service will be re-zoomed as soon as possible’.)

We’ve got used to hand-washing, face-covering, and social distancing. We stay at home unless we have to go out, and we go out for walks in every kind of weather, if we are able. Over on social media there are still people arguing that COVID19 is a hoax, or manmade, and that government rules are designed to limit our freedom in order to implement some diabolical global plan (funded by Bill Gates, apparently). (These are the same people arguing that the moon landings were faked and that the earth is flat.)

In the mainstream media, there are arguments about how the pandemic should be handled and about how and when we are going to recover. There are also arguments about what the church should have done and what it should do now.

Mother Church

The pandemic has clearly had a massive impact on the church. Not least because so many of our most faithful supporters and generous givers are in the age group which has been most affected. The pandemic has brought into the light some trends that were well underway before the coronavirus struck. You may have seen in the media that the Diocese of Chelmsford is planning to cut clergy posts and is appealing for more funds to support clergy numbers. The pandemic may have accelerated that process, but I understand that the Chelmsford diocesan board of finance was saying back in 2017 that the shortfall in parish share (the money that parishes give to the diocese to support mission and ministry) would “consume all the diocesan reserves by 2020”. Similar situations exist in other dioceses. As far as I know, there are no plans in Chester diocese to make clergy redundant or to close churches, but it does seem likely that, when clergy retire, or move on, their replacement will take longer to arrive, if at all.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have responded to media speculation with an article in The Spectator magazine which was headed ‘A defence of the Church of England’. (Some will be quick to point out that Stephen Cottrell, who became Archbishop of York in July 2020, was, before that, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the diocese referred to above.) The Archbishops note that, in media coverage of the pandemic, you might have seen the question, ‘Where is the C of E?’. They offer an answer:

We have been burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry and praying for our nation. We have been doing this not as superheroes, but as human beings living through the same crisis as everyone else: grieving, home-schooling, worrying, getting sick, shielding, isolating, weeping.

My own experience of the pandemic has included bereavement – my mother died from COVID19 very early on. My father was hospitalised and unable to attend her funeral. (I have written about this in my personal blog.) I have also had anxiety over loved ones who have been ill. I have had the frustration of not being able to visit family in this country and abroad; of children and grandchildren that I can see on a screen but not hold or hug.

In my ministry there have been so many things that I have not been able to do, or have had to do differently, from livestreaming worship to conducting funerals at the graveside, having only spoken to the families by phone or video call.

The Archbishops talk about their shock at reading what the media say is happening to the Church and they try to set the record straight:

There are no plans to dismantle the parish network. We are committed to our calling to be a Christian presence in every community.

They point out that, while some churches have closed, over 100 new congregations and churches have been planted in recent years. The Church is committed to maintaining its presence in the poorest parts of the country and in rural areas. Although there are large numbers of clergy retiring, this year has seen “the biggest rise in ordained and lay vocations for a quarter of a century.”

Of course, the Church faces huge challenges – as it did before the pandemic – including the maintenance of its buildings and the financial cost of sustaining mission and ministry across the whole country. The most recent financial report for the Church of England is from 2019 (pre-COVID). This shows that, in nearly half of the parishes in the country, annual income is not enough to cover annual expenditure. Only a quarter of parishes have enough annual income to cover five extra weeks of expenditure. The biggest item of expenditure is, of course, parish share.

A piece in the Church Times points out that we find ourselves in a new place:

there has never been a time in the Church’s history when either the organisation or the buildings were funded on a democratic basis by the people in the pews.

In other words, in the past the Church of England was funded in part by rich benefactors and in part by tithes imposed on the less wealthy. The situation now is that, if we want to continue as a national, parochial, church, the funding has to come from “purely voluntary, deliberate giving by ordinary parishioners”. And that is a shock to the system!

In our two churches, we face huge issues, but we are not alone.

Mothering Sunday

I began by saying that our current experience of ‘exile’ started with Mothering Sunday in 2020, and here we find ourselves approaching that occasion again. In my sermons for Mothering Sunday, I usually point out that the Christian festival has all but been overtaken by the secular celebration of Mothers’ Day. But in church our thoughts are not just with mums but also with our ‘mother church’. Traditionally, people would visit the church where they were baptised (their ‘mother church’) or the cathedral (the ‘mother church’ of the diocese). Young girls in service would be given the day off and this would mean they were able to visit family, including their mothers.

Mothering Sunday falls mid-Lent on a day also called Laetare Sunday. ‘Laetare’ is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ and is taken from the traditional texts set for the fourth Sunday of Lent. Isaiah 66.10, 11 tells God’s people to ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem’ and pictures Jerusalem as a nursing mother to her children. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul takes up the story of Abraham and his descendants. We are Abraham’s spiritual children, and our ‘mother’ is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4.21-31).

The traditional gospel reading for Laetare Sunday is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This became associated with a relaxation of strict Lenten fasting and the day was also called ‘Refreshment Sunday’. Gifts of cakes and buns were made for Mothering Sunday to be given to parents. Simnel cake became particularly associated with this tradition.

At the time of writing, we are starting to hear of the proposed roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions. The success of the UK’s vaccination programme provides a glimmer of hope, but we are all warned that the road ahead must be travelled slowly and cautiously.

The twin focuses of Mothering Sunday – family and church – are both going to be affected by restrictions, this year at least. We live in hope that next year we will be in a better place. But as things stand, both family and church could do with a bit of love.

Advent Themes

On Thursday I spoke – via video link, of course – with a group of Y6 children from one of our local primary schools. They had been looking at Advent and Christmas and had prepared a number of questions for me. These included

What do you wear on Christmas Day? I spoke about my surplice and the colour of my stole. I think they really wanted to know if I had a Christmas jumper. (I do.)

What do you eat on Christmas Day? I spoke about the Christmas puddings I usually make, following Nanny Wellington’s secret recipe. (Not this year, I’m afraid.)

And then I was asked about the themes of Advent. I had to think carefully. The traditional themes for Advent meditation are ‘the Four Last Things’:

Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell

The traditional sermon on Advent Sunday would talk about the Second Coming of Christ as judge and king; useful if the preacher feels the need to tell their congregation to ‘straighten up and fly right’.

“Are you ready to meet God when he comes as judge and king?”

Up to this point, the lesson had been pretty upbeat, and I didn’t want to bring things down. What I said was that, during Advent, Christians try to find some time to reflect on what kind of person they are and what kind of person they would like to be. It’s always difficult, given the rush to be festive that is going on all around us, but our weekly service of Compline and reflection gives an opportunity to take time out from the commercial and other pressures in the run-up to Christmas.

But this year, everything is different. When did Advent begin, that season of solemn reflection? There were no services in church on Advent Sunday. The first candle on the Advent wreath was lit virtually. It seems to me that, this year, Advent began just before Mothering Sunday, the first lockdown. We have had so much time to reflect on our own mortality and shortcomings, waiting for something better to come along, that it seems like we have been in Advent for ever. And the Christmas we are preparing for will be muted and limited. So, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s not use our Advent sermons and services to preach about the need to straighten up and fly right.

Let’s not pretend that the Christmas message is the one that says “he’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Instead, let’s hear the ‘comfort and joy’ that God offers in coming to us as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place

I’m writing this having seen those terrible images of the fire which has ravaged the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Today there is aerial footage of the extent of the devastation but that doesn’t match the shock of watching video of the spire collapsing. Someone has commented that the last time the 850-year old building suffered major damage was during the French Revolution, and that it survived two world wars largely unscathed. 500 firefighters attended, risking their own lives in order to save what they could of the building. It was said to be within 15 to 30 minutes of complete destruction.

A priest, Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade, entered the building while the fire was raging in order to rescue precious relics held there.

And, bizarrely, while I am writing this, I answer the phone to someone from Lymm Fire Brigade. They want to arrange a visit to St Cross to arrange a safety inspection – today. I explain that it’s not a great time for me (it’s Holy Week) but hope that a churchwarden might be free to meet them.

The world’s reaction to the fire at Notre Dame has been swift and heartfelt. Pope Francis said:

Today we unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron said that Notre Dame would be rebuilt “more beautiful than ever”, hopefully within five years. “We can do it and we will come together,” he said. Billionaires and ordinary people around the world have pledged more than 5 million euros to support the rebuilding project, recognising that the cathedral is not just a house of religion, but a symbol of Paris and of France, and an icon that belongs to the world.

Others have expressed conflicting views: given the crisis we face over climate change and poverty, and the fact that people are still living with the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 which claimed over 70 lives, how can the world justify spending such a huge amount of money on a mere building?

In our own small way, we face similar questions with our churches. Like parishes up and down the country, we have buildings which are much loved and valued, but we find ourselves faced with having to fund repairs and maintenance from the pockets of small congregations of ageing worshippers. While we can’t claim anything to match Notre Dame’s history – Henry VI of England and Napoleon Bonaparte were crowned there, and its where Joan of Arc was beatified – we do have our own stories. St Cross and St Matthew’s are the places where people have been christened and married, and where loved ones are remembered. People come to us for a Christingle service or on Remembrance Sunday. They visit the churchyard on Mothering Sunday. They want us to be there for their grandchildren to have those experiences too. Our buildings are not essential: the early church met in people’s homes. But they do stand as a visible symbol of our commitment to be here for our community (not just the congregation).

At St Matthew’s we have just held our annual meeting. Questions were asked – rightly – about the gap between our income and expenditure, and the costs of repairs to the roof and stonework (amongst other things). We had just received the news that our faculty application – the permission to go ahead with the proposed development of the building – had been granted. But how can we go ahead with a building project when we don’t have the money to mend the roof or pay the bills without dipping into our ‘savings’?

The answer to that question lies in the vision we have for the church. Is it a building that merely needs to be kept open for diminishing numbers of the faithful? Or do we see ourselves as having something to offer our community? How does our building express our faith and the desire to be open to those who live locally but don’t often turn up for regular services? The proposed reordering is about making our building more inviting and accessible by improved access and better use of the space for welcome and hospitality. The Chancellor of the Diocese (His Honour Judge David Turner QC) had to look at our proposals and the objections that were made to them. His job is to consider the impact our plans will have on the building (given its listed status) and the possible benefits to the mission and worship of the church. In particular, he has to ensure that we do no harm to the building’s historical and architectural character.

The Chancellor concluded that

“the parish has, in my judgement, demonstrated clear and convincing justification for the changes proposed which is more than sufficient here to outweigh any minor architectural detriment. In most cases the changes will represent improvement.

In short, I have found the arguments for change persuasive here. These changes, I have no doubt, will better serve the ministry and mission of the church in the parish and area.”

So, we have permission to do the work. We now need the money and the will to proceed. We will be seeking grants for the project and fundraising (as we will for repairs). We need people to come together in support of our vision and mission; not just our regular worshippers but also the wider community.

Unlike Notre Dame, we don’t have billionaires queuing up to give us money. But we do have you. And that’s a great start!


Alan Jewell

‘Mystery Worshipper’

Back in the late 1970s, there was a quirky Christian magazine called Ship of Fools. It didn’t last long in print form but resurfaced as a website on April Fools’ day 1998. One of its regular features is a report from a ‘Mystery Worshipper’. Like the ‘mystery shoppers’ who go into department stores and report back on the service they experience, the Mystery Worshipper attends a church and writes about what they find. The Mystery Worshipper records everything from the welcome they got on arrival, the style of worship, and the length and quality of the sermon, to the coffee served afterwards.

It’s quite difficult to be a Mystery Worshipper when you’re wearing a clerical collar and there’s a seat at the front that’s reserved for you, but occasionally I get the opportunity to attend a service as a regular punter. We were able to do this after Easter, when we were on holiday in Australia. Now to be fair, when I’m on holiday, I don’t always go to church. Shocking, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate on a Sunday morning with coffee and pastries. On this occasion, however, we managed to stir ourselves in time to catch the train into Melbourne city centre and arrive for the main morning service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

St Paul’s is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and the Province of Victoria, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Melbourne, who is Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia. (Fun fact: the word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra which means a ‘seat’. The cathedral is where the bishop’s seat is located, from which the bishop teaches and presides over the diocese.) From its service sheet, we learn that St Paul’s is “home for worshippers from more than two dozen nations” and is situated on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Kulin nation. On the sheet and verbally in the service, respect was paid to “the traditional owners of the land”.

The service we attended was 10:30 AM Choral Eucharist. As we were there on the Sunday after Easter, the cathedral choir was on holiday. The music, however, was ably lead by the Cathedral Consort – which I guess is the ‘B Team’, but very good they were. The music ranged from a 16th century anthem by Orlandus Lassus, and pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959) to hymns by Charles Wesley and John Bell, a good catholic mix.

The service was led by the Precentor, the Revd Canon Heather Patacca. The preacher should have been the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, but, we were told, he was off sick. Instead, we were to hear one of the assistant clergy, whose regular responsibility was for the 9:00 AM ‘Family Friendly’ Eucharist. I was looking forward to the sermon because I wanted to see how a ‘family friendly’ priest would address the Choral Eucharist congregation, but I was disappointed that, instead of speaking her own words, she simply read the text of the Dean’s prepared sermon. The sermon ended dryly with, “the Dean would like to invite you to consider…” In their defence, the Dean had prepared a series of addresses on the Gospel of John for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and this was presumably a follow-up to that, as the gospel reading was from John (20:19-31 – Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas). In my humble opinion, a sermon is not a text that can be read, but something that happens when the preacher and the congregation work together, and, as they say in certain circles, “God shows up”. I’m happy to elaborate on this if requested!

When we turned to the Lord’s Prayer, we were each invited to say it in our own language. As we were in Australia, most of the worshippers spoke English, but the service sheet gave the opening words to the prayer in French, Spanish, German, and, what I later learned were Malay, Maori, Chinese and Japanese. This was an interesting expression of the cathedral’s emphasis on the diversity of its congregation. It was also good to share the Peace with those around us.

The invitation to communion was inclusive (“all baptised Christians”) and came with a word to the wise: “Please keep your valuables with you”.

I’m afraid we didn’t stay for coffee – or ‘Morning Tea’ as the Australians call it – not because we didn’t feel welcome, but because the sun was shining, and we wanted to be outside. We enjoyed brunch at a riverside café instead.

One of the things that caught my attention at the cathedral was their use of ‘Tap and Go’ technology: their collection plates are fitted with a device that reads credit cards and automatically takes a donation of $20, which, they say, is the average weekly contribution made by their worshippers. As well as on the collection plates, ‘Tap and Go’ devices were located in various places around the cathedral. It’s a thought! (But if we install those in our churches, what amount should they be set to ask for?)

In the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports, there are a few questions which must always be answered:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, as so often, it was the music, particularly the Benjamin Britten and the anthem.

And which part was like being in… er… the other place?

Nothing really, although, as I said, listening to someone reading a sermon they haven’t written, doesn’t do a lot for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it was good to feel at home so far from our actual home.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?

Probably the ‘Tap and Go’ technology.

Alan Jewell