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.

Comfort and Joy

In a normal year, my December magazine article would contain a message about the importance of Christmas, and express the hope that all our readers would be able to attend one or more of our Christmas services, and perhaps invite family and friends to join us. We would be looking forward to Carol Services, Crib Services and ‘Midnight Mass’. That’s what would happen in a normal year. But 2020 has not been a normal year and who knows where we will be by Christmas, or how 2021 will look?

I’m writing this in November, during national Lockdown 2. Places of worship are again closed and we are waiting to hear when they are likely to re-open, making planning all but impossible. Archbishops have joined other faith leaders in asking for an exemption for places of worship, given all the work we have put into making our buildings and services as COVID19-safe as we can. That exemption has not been granted and we are urged to follow the regulations and guidance that are in place.

In most years, along with other clergy, I put some effort into reminding people that Advent is an important season in the Church’s year – and encouraging people to resist rushing headlong into Christmas celebration without spending some time in Advent reflection. This year, I feel different. The pandemic, which led to churches being closed for Mothering Sunday and Easter, has felt like an awfully long Advent. We have been unable to meet in church for worship or to share in holy communion. We have been looking forward to better things. Even in Lent, you’re not supposed to abstain from bread and wine at communion! But we have all been keeping an enforced abstinence from the things that are given to sustain us. Perhaps we’ll learn to value what really matters, having had so much taken away from us in this awful year. Enough Advent already!

So, bring it on! Put up your Christmas tree in November, if you want! Put lights on the outside of your house to combat the darkness and spread a little, much-needed cheer! Make mince pies and eat chocolate! Watch Christmas movies and listen to Christmas music![1]

And, in the midst of all the self-indulgence, the Christmas message invites us to think of others. The pandemic has seen many examples of people caring for others, including the extraordinary response to Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS, and the little acts of kindness that were stirred up in people seeing their neighbours in need.

At the heart of so many communities, lies the church. It has been estimated that the Church of England alone is worth £12.4bn a year to the country through the events and activities it provides and supports. But what will our church look like next year? Will we still be here for Christmas 2021? We need to plan for recovery and growth if we are to continue serving our communities. Recent research suggests that churches which are engaged with their communities (not hiding away inside their buildings) are more likely to grow. Churches should be marked by:

  • A strong sense of connection with their local area (not just with their own congregations)
  • Perseverance – years of engaging with their communities
  • Hospitality and Generosity
  • Participation in social action, working with other people of goodwill, regardless of whether they are people of faith or not[2]

How will our churches in Stretton and Appleton Thorn continue to engage with our communities in the coming years? How can you be a part of that?

My December message usually ends with me wishing you and yours a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. I’m pleased to repeat that here, while, at the same time acknowledging that this is likely to be a very different Christmas from any that we have known.

But, even if everything else is different, I take comfort in this:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. (Hebrews 13.8)


[1] My favourite Christmas movie, if you’re interested, is Scrooged (1988, starring Bill Murray) and my favourite Christmas music includes folky stuff by Kate Rusby and the Albion Christmas Band.

[2] https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/13-november/news/uk/the-c-of-e-must-evolve-for-growth-says-cottrell

Learning from Lockdown

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="10" max-font-size="72" height="80">Back in July, Bishop Keith (acting as diocesan bishop) wrote to clergy about a ‘Think Tank’ that he had set up, under the tag “<em>Learning and Leading out of Lockdown</em>”. The idea came from a meeting of rural deans (via Zoom, of course) asking the question, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”Back in July, Bishop Keith (acting as diocesan bishop) wrote to clergy about a ‘Think Tank’ that he had set up, under the tag “Learning and Leading out of Lockdown”. The idea came from a meeting of rural deans (via Zoom, of course) asking the question, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”

The Think Tank produced some resources for reflection and discussion which have been circulated. Bishop Keith, commending the resources to us, was very keen to emphasise that, given the exhaustion and weariness that many were feeling, this might not be the most productive time for reflection. “It’s not just something to add to your ‘to do’ list,” he said. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that that was exactly what it was!

Given that the resources were sent out in July – and we now find ourselves in November still facing huge uncertainties about what the future holds – it seemed too soon. It still does. How can we reflect on something while we are still in the middle of it?

Even earlier (13 May), I had joined an online training session, organised by CPAS, called “Leadership in Lockdown” as I thought it might help me to think through what we were facing. Webinars via Zoom were fairly new to me, but I was able to get the technology to work. I had expected to sit looking at my screen, perhaps making a few notes, but I was quickly introduced to a new horror: the ‘breakout room’! If you have ever attended any kind of training session, you’ll know that the scariest part is when the leader says, “Just turn to the person next to you and say what you feel about this…” I didn’t know they could do that on Zoom! But there I was, face-to-face (on-screen at least) with someone I had never met before – a vicar from somewhere else in the country – expected to talk about what I was learning from the pandemic. I have to admit, I can’t really remember what my Zoom partner said. But I remember what I said. I said, “Well my wife was ill… and I was ill… and my mum died from COVID19…” My poor Zoom partner!

The following day we went to Gloucester for mum’s funeral. It was one of those restricted coronavirus funerals where only a very few mourners were allowed to attend. Sadly, even my dad wasn’t there because he too had been taken ill and was in hospital where he tested positive for COVID19. As some of you will know, when we returned from the funeral later that day, Rose (my wife) took a call from the home where her father was, saying that he was now quite poorly and that they were concerned about him. Restricted visiting meant that Rose agonised about going to see him (meaning that her brother and sister would not be allowed to) but she did, the following day. She set up a video call with her siblings, and he died while she was there. We attended another very limited funeral.

So, remind me: what was I supposed to be doing? Oh yes, reflecting and learning from lockdown; asking, “What is God saying to us through this pandemic?”

On 17 March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to all Church of England clergy, following Government guidance, to advise that:

Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold.

I’m told that this was the first time since 1208 that Church worship in England had been suspended! (In 1208, Pope Innocent III put England under an interdict when King John rejected his choice for Archbishop of Canterbury.)

It wasn’t that the church was to “shut up shop” but that we were to find ‘new ways of being church’ without being able to access our buildings. Now that sounds quite interesting to me: I have always felt that our buildings were as much a drain on our resources as they were an asset. So, what ‘new ways of being church’ would we find?

One thing we found was that we could live-stream services using Zoom and Facebook. Each week we learned something new. And each week something new went wrong! There was one Sunday morning when so many churches tried to log on to Zoom at the same time that Zoom gave up the ghost and refused to play. Imagine that: the church shutting down an online video service! On another occasion, we had no problem connecting to Zoom, but then Facebook refused to talk to Zoom and we were unable to go live.

During these weeks, a small group of us met (virtually, of course) on a Saturday to go through the following day’s service, allocating prayers and readings to different voices. This was something I really enjoyed and hope we might be able to incorporate in future services that are being live-streamed from church. We built up a camaraderie between us (forged in the heat of never knowing whether it was going to work or not!) and learned a little about leading worship remotely. One of my favourite moments came when one of our contributors came to read a prayer, but couldn’t see the words on her screen because it was behind the image of another contributor. I won’t reveal names, but it’s the first time I have ever heard a prayer introduced with the words, “I can’t see the prayer because x is in the way!”

 We are slowly re-introducing services in church, but, as I write, Warrington is about to go into the highest tier for COVID19 restrictions. It’s so difficult to plan ahead as we are constantly being given new guidance and new regulations. We have had to scale down so many of our activities. This month, November, is the month for remembrance – for the church, for families and for nations, as we mark All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance days. We will be doing those things but very differently from previous years. And who knows what Christmas will look like? I can hardly bear to think about it!

In order to give myself some space to think and reflect, I have spent a quiet day at Foxhill. The day was advertised as a time to ‘Refresh, Restore, Renew’. We began and ended with prayer in the chapel. Apart from that, it was mostly silent – even over lunch where we sat at socially distanced tables – so I managed to read most of a book called “Punk Monk”[1]. I won’t summarise the book here, but it begins with something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime in 1945. He was thinking about what it would mean to follow Christ in the modern world. He called for a new form of monasticism, aware that in the past, the church and the world have been transformed by monastic communities. He wrote:

Bonhoeffer’s death in a concentration camp means that we only have the start of his thinking of what that would look like, but it’s a good start for our own thinking and prayer. What would church look like if, instead of buildings, ritual and liturgy, we were a community governed by Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount?

“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

So, you see, I have been reflecting and learning from lockdown. I’m just not at all sure what I have learned! Perhaps you are doing better than me? What is God saying to us?

Every blessing,

Alan


[1] Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing, 2007 by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig

Back in Time?

You may have seen some of this BBC 2 series in which a family is transported back in time to discover what life was like in previous decades. In the first programme of this series (Back in Time for the Weekend), the family home is transformed into a 1950s house. Deprived of all their 21st century technology, what will the family do for a whole weekend? How will the children entertain themselves without their smart phones and computer games? How will mum and dad cope with spending their leisure time learning how to ‘make do and mend’?

As well as learning to sew, ballroom dance and cook spam fritters in the open air, the family is exposed to one particular shock: on Sunday morning, they had to go to church! Why? Because that’s what families did in the 1950s and, to be honest, there wasn’t really anything else to do. The children attended Sunday school, where they learned the lesson of the Good Samaritan (from former Sunday School teacher, Anne Widdicombe, no less). In 1951, we learned, over half of children in the UK went to Sunday school each week, compared with 5% today. The experience seemed most difficult for mum, Steph. She couldn’t stay for the whole church service but had to walk out. She wasn’t against religion, she said, if that’s what people wanted to do with their time, but she struggled with the idea of having to do something she wasn’t comfortable with, in order to appear ‘respectable’. Sadly, in many ways, church culture hasn’t changed that much since the 1950s, even though the world around us has changed massively.

Each year in September, there is an initiative called ‘Back to Church Sunday’, aimed at encouraging people who have fallen away from church to attend a service. On Facebook, I jokingly put the question: “Does anyone know when ‘Back to Church Sunday is this year?’ Church attendance is something we have all had to give up and none of us yet knows when we will be able to go back to church.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on all of us, not least the church. Who knows what the long-term effect will be or what church will look like in the future?

Here’s the challenge: how will we encourage members of our communities to come back to church without requiring them to go back in time?