I am sure that you all have questions about how your lives will look after this weekend's announcements and will be scanning the official document for your own particular experience. In my blog posting 'What if? One' I expressed my considered opinion to the diocese that the church buildings should be allowed to open as other public spaces and shops open within the governments plan. However the consensus of opinion in the hierarchy of the church at the present time is that this should not happen. It seems that this will be the last thing to be allowed under the CofE reopening plan and it has no mention in the official documentation.
We seem to be looking at the possibility of some small gatherings for worship in July if the disease continues to decline. I have scheduled a piece for your consideration that looks forward to this possibility under the heading, ‘What if ? Two’. However I feel that this is not the time to post this as there is too much uncertainty this week and I need to look at it again given the present tone from the central church.
I will not be presiding at a private sacrament for streaming from our churches as it is contrary to my theology and implies all sorts of sacramental and priestly privileges that are not in my church(wo)manship. …. a great debate to be had here about this!
In my theology we are all ‘The Body of Christ’, taken, broken and scattered into the reality of our lives, we are the living breathing sacrament of God of which our Eucharists are the ‘visible sign of this invisible Grace’. …. basically, I can't ‘do it without you’!
The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, said: “We note from the Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy that churches could be open from July as part of the conditional and phased plan to begin lifting the lockdown. We look forward to the time when we are able to gather again in our church buildings.
"We are examining what steps we will need to take to do so safely and are actively planning ahead in preparation. We strongly support the Government’s approach of continuing to suppress the transmission of the virus and accordingly, we recognise that at this time public worship cannot return in the interests of public health and safety.”
In a discussion led by the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, who chairs a group examining how the Church of England might proceed once the current restrictions for COVID-19 are relaxed or lifted, the House of Bishops recognised that there have been some welcome signs of improvement in the current situation, including a reduction in new cases and hospital admissions giving evidence for hope.
While church buildings remain closed for public worship, in line with Government advice, the Bishops agreed in principle to a phased approach to lifting restrictions, in time and in parallel with the Government’s approach, with three broad stages as infection levels improve:
1.An initial immediate phase allowing very limited access to church buildings for activities such as streaming of services or private prayer by clergy in their own parishes, so long as the necessary hygiene and social distancing precautions are taken
2. Subsequently access for some rites and ceremonies when allowed by law, observing appropriate physical distancing and hygiene precautions
3. Worship services with limited congregations meeting, when Government restrictions are eased to allow this
I wonder if we should start to have a look at some of the implications of possible futures!! It is really important that we don’t attempt to go back to business as usual or imagine that will happen in the foreseeable future, however there are things that we can begin to discuss and mull over in our minds.
It is also important to have a view as the government are in the process of asking industry and the public sector how they would like to see lock down eased in order to safely facilitate their activity and at some point they will ask the church. I would like for us to have a voice, through our Archdeacon, about these issues so am beginning the conversation.
I am using the Transition Movement questioning model that initiated creative thinking in the faces of uncertain futures…… that asks What if?
What if churches were allowed to open but no services were allowed?
What would we do? How would we manage the opening in practical terms and what would we want the opening to facilitate? Why open them, what is the rational for opening? Would we encouraging contagion to do so and even if the government says yes, should we do it? What would we offer inside, would we encourage candle lighting, prayer trees and even small exhibitions of spiritual art or poetry or craft?
These are my thoughts so far……
Why open them? This is the first thing to ask
Because they normally are open. I know this sounds a little of an odd answer but in the rural communities were we live the relationship that people have with the churches is based on them being open. Many town and city centre churches are normally closed and opening them in a pandemic would be a novelty… for us it is just an adjustment back to ‘normal.
Because people passing like to pop in and pray. Again this is normal for us, part of the fabric of our communities for many more people than attend a church service on a Sunday. Our churches in the villages and attached to graveyards offer a place to add a moment of reflection to our exercise and support mental health for many people of any faith and none.
Because opening our churches offers hope. An empty church with a lighted candle is for many many people a symbol of unseen communion. Communion with people who have and will pass through and with those who have passed through their earthly lives. They epitomize continuity and at this time in the Pandemic this symbol could be a lifeline.
Would it encourage contagion?
No, there is no reason why it should. It would seem that the present lock down practices have been working and the ‘curve is flattening’. This reduction in spread has been achieved despite the continued opening of food shops of all sizes. It has to be the case that if you can enter a food shop with the multiple possible areas for contamination from warehouses, deliveries, shop staff, and checkout pin machines without creating a spike in infection rates then entering an empty church has to be seen as less dangerous. The transmission of this disease is as yet not fully understood and the argument above in anecdotal but surely has some weight.
What would be available for people in the church?
A candle would be lit in the morning and placed were it is visible and safe.
The votive stands would be available for people to light a candle and plastic gloves and hand sanitizer would be near to them for people to use if they wish.
A prayer tree could be created with paper labels to hang on the tree but no pens out, people would be advised to bring their own pen or write it at home. This may be an addition for later months as the risk levels fall.
As more people are allowed out and things reopen so some other people will remain isolated and this will be very hard to bare. The following things could help.
Exhibitions in the churches giving them a space to offer their ‘voice’ might give some sense of worth and purpose. Creative work, poems, songs and paintings created by those who are confined could be displayed and their offering photographed with the encouragement to comment and be in dialogue with the work.
Artistic projects that give people some part of a larger work of art to create at home and then bring it together in an installation in the churches… to build community through shared craft.
Community gardening where people are encouraged to individually tend the church gardens on a rota, bringing their own tools and connecting through seeing what others have done. Isolated people could offer plants they have grown.
How would this work in practice?
Priests and churchwardens and PCC members who are not shielded or over 70 would be asked if they would like to be part of a rota to open and close the churches. Door nobs and lighters would be disinfected and the plastic gloves and sanitizer checked as the church is closed.
People to help design and create artistic projects and gardening. Meeting in zoom chats on line or through whats-app groups.
This morning yet again we don’t gather in worship. We sit in isolation from each other and pray, or do daily readings, maybe we just listen… the birds are so loud! We do not gather and it will be some considerable time before we do. Some of you have been told that you must not venture out for twelve weeks and there are eight weeks to go and we have all been told that for the next three weeks we must continue to stay in. When we do reemerge, if it is this summer, there will be no ‘herd immunity’ and no vaccine so gatherings are likely to still be restricted and the demographic of the rural churches means that they will be diminished in size should they reopen. Because of this there is a huge emphasis on technology as a way of keeping in touch and of ‘doing church’ but I wonder if the texture and the tone of these meetings allows for the nuances of human interaction that we are really longing for.
I am reminded as I write this of our church services and how we enjoyed them. It is never about content, at least not from a single person or even a group who lead the worship. It was about all of us IN worship, in voice, in silence, in motion, at the communion, over coffee and in prayer. Sometimes this lead to times of worship that truly put a smile on our faces, filled us with an assurance of Gods presence and inspired us.
So I suppose that this short comment, this Sunday morning, is really and apology for not producing on-line worship for you all to watch. I just don’t feel that anything I do alone will replicate the ‘gathering’, the place, the ‘communion’ that we have experienced and loved. I would rather look to how we can live our faith in new ways than seek to replicate, in a very limited way, the ‘performances’ that happen in our worship on a Sunday.
As I sit here this morning I lovingly picture you all, the odd collection that we are. So different in so many ways. across all the social strata of our society, holding very different views, living diverse lives. I thank God for you all. I thank God that we are different and that our Gathering is a witness to diversity and tolerance, that is is a clear sign to a divided world that a common vision of humanity loving God and neighbour is possible. I love that we disagree, that we grumble and get bored, I love that we go round in circles in our decision-making and take ages to get things done. I love that people matter more than progress and as a family we have to learn to live together.
So lets gather on a Sunday in solidarity… over a cup of tea and remember each other and be in communion with one another.
On Good Friday I had a discussion with my 5 yr old grandchild Tessa. She has long known about 'Jesus crosses' and this year we talked about death. Earlier last month I had spoken to the children at Nettlestone nursery about how Easter was about death and life. For Tessa and for a little girl in the nursery death was a recent and real event, both had recently lost animals. Tessa had watched an orphan lamb die and the little girl had lost a pet cat. At the nursery she cried as she told us and was comforted and cared for by the staff and other children as we encouraged and reassured her, for Tessa there had been the ritual of burial and flowers that she described for me.
This year our whole society is obsessed by death... by the fear of death, of contagion from each other as we are reminded day on day of the death toll from the virus. Each week in the UK approximately 10,500 people die in total and in March this year this figure was lower than last year but as the Covid 19 virus continues to have an impact so the figures will rise. I remember standing in the Imperial War museum years ago and seeing the clock that ticks with the number of deaths world wide through war and I am reminded that if we had daily updates showing death from poverty, exploitation, war and obesity then our perception of the safe and cosy world we live in may be different.
At the moment it feels like our whole lives are controlled by computer models and statistics as deaths are logged and plotted; but not all deaths are the same and not all deaths are a tragedy.
As I talked to Tessa I told her about visit that I had at a death bed, an elderly lady who was leaving her frail body. I am not one for creating images of the unknowable as even from Jesus we get very little to go on when it comes to an afterlife but I told Tessa about this ladies smile as she listened to the story of Mary and Jesus, as Jesus meets her after his death (as told by John) and I told her that we need not be afraid to let go. Death is terrible, awesome and incredibly sad but it is absolutely the one true reality of our lives.... we and those that we love will die.
Easter is about DEATH... about death and Resurrection. Easter is about premature, brutal, unjust death, the worst death of all; a young person mourned by his family and dearest friends, killed by torture for a crime he did not commit, taken at the prime of his life in the fullness of his strength. In this image all death, the peaceful passing of the elderly to the still born baby are held before us and we are terrified by it. Our fear is justified, we wonder how the pain will ever heal and it may stay with us forever because death scars us and may break us. All our deaths, the death of relationships, the death of dreams. the loss of health, the futures denied us are here in this image. This present crisis has killed so many more things than people. It has killed livelihoods, shattered hope, broken relationships and filled us with fear.... and after grief and fear comes anger and we are seeing that start to build.
I have always said that the greatest gift of our faith is the way that we can't avoid the Cross. The centrality of our faith all year is Death and Ressurection; not immortality, not blessing without cost or a fairy tale of miraculous wonders. Jesus spoke about this again and again and all year we hear His words and turn to face our fear of lifes' deaths.
Into this reality of death and the fear that is all around us comes the something that many of us have already recognized.... LIFE..... Life bursts forth. I have spoken about the Good in life about true life of relationships, of appreciation of nature and of the acts of service, the love of neighbour that we are created for. In this time of death and fear there has been a revolution in our society, we have noticed the spring and are walking in natural environments and we are desperate to do so. We have cherished our families and friends making contact any way that we can and committing to moving in together 'for the duration'. We have learnt that we can't live by bread alone, that we need each other. We are educating the children that we have brought into being, spending more time with them that we ever have, finding out who they are and learning how to live together.
We are experiencing RESURRECTION. It is not an abstract concept wrapped up in religious language. It is not a joyful frivolity that is an addition to our already blessed lives. Through death and loss we are coming to NEW LIFE.
This year what will your New Life look like? What has died? What has been born again?
In front of us all is the possibility of a completely new future, don't cling to the old, I finish with this beautiful story from John's Gospel.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Prayers for you to use at 10 a.m. on Easter Day when our Church Bells ring
There ore two alternative sets: you might like to use both, or if you don't have much time, choose one or two bits you like.
I. Recollection on Easter morning
Yesterday I was crucified with Christ;
today I am glorified with him.
Yesterday I was dead with Christ;
today I am sharing in his resurrection.
Yesterday I was buried with him;
today I am waking with him from the sleep of death. Gregory of Nazionzus (A.D. 389)
If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. St Paul, writing to First Century Christians - Colossions 3.1-4
Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to you,
and all ages;
to you be glory and power
through every age and for ever.
May the risen Christ give us his peace.
All: Alleluia. Amen.
II. Praise God
Blessed are you, Sovereign Lord,
the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
From the deep waters of death
you brought your people to new birth
by raising your Son to life in triumph.
Through him dark death has been destroyed
and radiant life is everywhere restored.
As you call us out of darkness into his marvellous light
may our lives reflect his glory
and our lips repeat the endless song.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All: Blessed be God for ever.
The Lord's Prayer - for ourselves, and for all whom we love
Rejoicing in God's new creation,
let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us
All: Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory
for ever and ever.
May the risen Christ grant us the joys of eternal life.
Let us bless the Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia!
All: Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!