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?
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.
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.
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.