Love in the Time of Coronavirus

February sees us marking Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: both ultimately to do with love and both affected by the current pandemic. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, which would have been perfect for the weddings afternoon that we have held at St Matthew’s for a number of years. We should have been inviting couples who have booked weddings with us to a meeting in church with the prospect of a glass of fizz and the opportunity to talk about the plans for their big day. It has always been an enjoyable occasion as we have welcomed couples, and their guests, and shared their excitement.

25 people attended last year’s event – brides and grooms, bridesmaids and best men, mums and dads. We offered them a cup of tea and a piece of cake, showed photographs of weddings from previous years, played the bridal march, and interviewed some returning couples who said – without being bribed and with very little prompting – what a fabulous wedding ceremony they had had at St Matthew’s. ‘Perfect’, was the word they used.

We also had bellringers, flower arrangers, a musician, a warden, and a verger, to talk about what they could offer to make each wedding personal and special.

In the end, of the six weddings booked at St Matthew’s for 2020, only one actually took place – a much-reduced ceremony postponed to Christmas Eve for a couple determined to get married whatever the circumstances! The wedding was very different from what they had originally envisaged, but it was nonetheless a very special and memorable occasion.

At the start of 2021, we have a number of couples looking anxiously at the restrictions in place and wondering if, by the time their wedding day comes around, they will be able to celebrate as they hoped, or if they will have to postpone yet again.

Lent, Holy Week and Easter

The Church of England has also published advice on how to mark Lent, Holy Week and Easter in a COVID-secure way. Ash Wednesday – which falls on 17 February this year – has traditionally been marked by a service including the Imposition of Ashes. This is usually done by the priest making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead in a mixture of ash (made from last year’s Palm crosses) and oil. But how do you do that safely in a pandemic where social distancing is prescribed? The guidance suggests sprinkling the ash on the forehead; but I don’t see that going well: worshippers will be getting it in their eyes, on their clothes, up their noses and everywhere. I’m not sure it’s something we can do in a dignified manner. So, maybe the imposition of ashes is one of the things we’ll have to give up for Lent this year?

What’s Love got to Do with it?

I started by saying that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were both ultimately to do with love. Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love. It was originally a Christian festival honouring a martyr (or two) of that name who possibly performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Of course, the saints’ feast day falls in Spring when, according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. The romantic associations of Valentine’s Day ensure the sales of cards, chocolates and flowers, and make it hard to get a table in a restaurant, at least in a normal year.

But turning to Ash Wednesday, and paraphrasing Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” Most churchgoers associate Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by Satan. Lent, however, has varied in length through its history and was associated with solemn preparation for Easter, particularly by those who were to be baptised and those seeking to be reconciled to the church. The practice of abstinence, prayer, and study recommended itself to other Christians and became a part of the Church’s year. If you do decide to follow some Lenten observance, starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Eve (or Holy Saturday), then have a look at your calendar: you’ll see that it adds up to 46 days. How do we reckon the 40 days of Lent? Well, obviously, as I am fond of pointing out, Sundays don’t count! Why? Because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, a little Easter. It’s a day for feasting (in moderation, of course), not fasting.

But what’s love got to do with it? The bible tells us that

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life

John 3.16

This self-giving of God shows us what love looks like. Our loved-up wedding couples are just one example of what love can do. It changes lives. Jesus shows us what love looks like taken to the infinite degree. He holds nothing back but gives his all for the world he loves. The story of Good Friday is the story of love without limit. The Easter gospel of resurrection shows us that a love like that knows no bounds. It is eternal.

Love in the time of coronavirus may feel in short supply, particularly for those who live alone; or for those who share a home with someone they don’t love, or who doesn’t love them. But we hold on. We hold on to our conviction that, at the end of the day, love wins.

Perhaps the saint for our times is Julian of Norwich (1342 to 1416). Mother Julian lived in the wake of the Black Death and was – as we would say today – self-isolating in a small cell linked to St Julian’s church in Norwich. She experienced a world devastated by plague, and her own sickness led her to believe that she was on her deathbed. Into this darkness came the light of Christ, in the form of visions (‘shewings’ or revelations) of God’s love, demonstrated particularly in the passion of Christ.

In one vision, Julian sees something no bigger than a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand. What is it?, she asks. She is told that this everything that God has made. She is amazed and concerned by its littleness and fragility. How can something so tiny and so vulnerable survive? The answer?

It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

Mother Julian sees God’s creation as loved and sustained by God.

How shall we see our world? The world glimpsed only through windows if we are shielding. The world we encounter on our daily walk (if we are able to get out). The world seen through fogged-up glasses (if we wear them with a mask). The pandemic reminds us just how fragile our world is.

Before AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and now covid-19, it was tuberculosis, the plague, cholera, typhoid, and influenza that cut swathes through the populations of the world. Perching like puffins on the cliff edge is the historically normal situation for humanity, but we had forgotten.

The precariousness of our existence is an uncomfortable thing to dwell on. But we have come through a year in which there were tens of thousands of excess deaths in the UK, and we are not through yet. Julian believed that our fragile world was created and is sustained by divine love. So I will give the last word to her, finding light in the darkness:

but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well

Alan Jewell

All You Need Is Love

For Chris and Erin on their wedding day – 2nd April 2016. Melbourne, Australia.

Love, of course, was invented in the 1960s by The Beatles, a group from Liverpool, England, who also, I believe, managed to have a couple of hits over here. Or, if they didn’t exactly invent love, they popularised the idea. They gave that decade its slogan with the song John Lennon wrote, ‘All You Need Is Love‘. The Beatles performed ‘All You Need Is Love’ on the world’s first live global television link, and with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, and others, sang it to an audience of over 400 million viewers in 25 countries, on 25th June 1967. With the world coming together, that was what Lennon wanted to say.

The song has gone on to have a life of its own, being covered by Echo & The Bunnymen, Elvis Costello, One Direction, and the cast of Glee. (Tom Jones and Noel Gallagher have also had a crack at it.) It also features in the Cirque De Soleil show, called, simply, ‘Love’. Love, it turns out, is all you need.

But it also turns out that the idea that love is all you need, didn’t really originate with John Lennon in the 1960s. You can find something very similar in the 50s. Not the 1950s. The Fifties – the middle decade of the first century. A man named Paul (not McCartney, but ‘Of Tarsus’) writing a letter to a community in Corinth, Greece, notices that, whatever else they have going for them, they seem to have missed out on the more important stuff. For a start, they are divided one against another; everyone is picking sides, as if what divides us is what defines us.

Look, says Mr Of Tarsus, at the end of the day there’s very little that really matters. In fact, he says, I could count on the fingers of one hand the things that really matter. I wouldn’t even need my thumb or my pinky. Three things really matter. Just three. They are faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.

  • Faith tells us that our lives are meaningful, worthwhile; we have purpose, we have value.
  • Hope is why we get out of bed in the morning, in the hope that today is going to be a worthwhile day.
  • And love? Love is the thing without which, nothing much matters or makes sense. Love is the thread woven into the fabric of life, that makes of it a cloth of gold. Without it, life is little more than noise.

Those who choose to marry exercise great faith. You put so much of your life’s happiness in the hands of that one other person. In return, they put their faith in you. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.

Those who marry, exercise hope. We have been looking forward to today. We hope that today will be everything you want it to be. And we hope that today is the first of many, many days of fun, laughter and celebration with family, and with friends.

And love? Love is all you need. You can travel half way around the world and discover love. Or you can discover love and travel half way around the world. Because love is all you need.

Well, there are three things that matter – really matter – they are faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Happy Valentine’s!

I’m not sure the post office will be overly troubled when it comes to delivering valentine’s cards to the vicarage; no need to put on extra staff or hire a couple of vans to handle the volume. The number of cards I’m expecting to write – and hoping to receive – is exactly one. (No more, no less.)

The origins of St Valentine’s Day are a bit obscure. Wikipedia tells me that there may have been more than one early Christian saint named Valentinus. The most famous story is of a Valentine in Rome who, when Christians were being persecuted for their faith, performed weddings for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry. This Valentine was executed for his crimes and sent a farewell letter to the daughter of his jailer (whom he had healed), signing it “your Valentine”.

We’ve come a long way from the death of a Christian martyr to the Hallmark festival of cards, teddies, balloons and chocolate. As it happens, this year St Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday. But it also happens to be the First Sunday of Lent, so all those chocolates (and the prosecco) should be put away until Easter… My guess is that not many of us will be able to do that.

Given that St Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, I have decided to invite all the couples who are planning weddings at St Matthew’s to come to the church that afternoon. I’m not sure how many will be able to do so. I was told that they have probably all got other plans… It also falls in the school half-term holiday, so that may take a few away. But some couples have already replied to say that they will be able to join us, so it is definitely going ahead! Some are bringing parents, bridesmaids and best men, too. What I would like to do is to welcome them all to the church with refreshments (maybe even something sparkly to drink, if someone would be kind enough to donate a few bottles!) and help them to feel at home. Often those who book weddings with us are not very familiar with the church and find the place a bit daunting, especially when they are nervous about their special day. This will give them chance to make themselves feel at home, and the opportunity to ask questions. Often wedding couples email me to ask things like how many pews there are (so they know how many pew ends to order) and where the bridesmaids will sit. This valentine’s afternoon will enable them to familiarise themselves with the building and think about those all-important decorations and seating plans.

I’m hoping that those who are involved with weddings will be represented – the choir and bell ringers, for example. I’ve booked the organist (the one I’m hoping to get a valentine’s card from) and asked her to play the Bridal Chorus and Wedding March for people to hear. Mind you, that will probably make them (and her) even more nervous! It would be good to have a number of regular worshippers there too, to chat with couples and their families, and express the church’s welcome.

If you are able to join us, we will be in church at 3:00PM on St Valentine’s Day (that’s 14th February, if you weren’t sure).

The other thing I’ve done, which I know used to happen at St Matthew’s and which I think is a great idea, is to ask couples to let me have a photograph of themselves. I’m planning to put these up at the back of church so that the congregation can see who it is that is getting married. When you see the photos I hope you will spend a moment to pray for them and for all who are preparing to be married.

“The course of true love never did run smooth” and all of us face challenges in our relationships with one another. Those who are to be married need our prayers and our support. The Beatles summed up the 1960s with their anthem “All You Need Is Love”. But Saint Paul the Apostle said it first, following the life and example of Jesus: there are three things that have eternal significance. They are faith, hope and love.

And the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:3)

Love from …





Wedding Feedback…

Feedback received from a couple after their wedding:

Absolutely perfect wedding service at St Matthews Stretton. Our vicar was lighthearted and funny as well as very professional. The service was just the right length and we are very grateful to the choir, bell ringers, vicar and anyone else involved who helped everything run so smoothly. Also it’s worth mentioning that we had many wedding guests tell us that it was the best church wedding service they had ever been to. Thoroughly enjoyed by all. Thank you.