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”. 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?
 Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing, 2007 by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig