There was the time before coronavirus, the time of its spread around the world and then there was time after when it became a part of a new normality.
In March 2020 I took my pre-Easter retreat and broke one of my own rules – I took a means to access the internet. We were in the grips of an epidemic that had taken churches back to 2009 and swine-flu when we couldn’t exchange the Peace within our services and the Holy Communion was given in bread-form only. The renaissance of the Liturgy of the Hand-Sanitizer was enjoyed as we stood a little further away from one another, doing away with back-slapping and hand-shaking so representative of the church-door after a service and those over the (youthful by church standards) age of 70 became a little more apprehensive. In 2009 the swine-flu abated and life returned to normal after a month or so, but I felt it prudent to have half-an-ear to ground while I went off to talk to God somewhere less noisy. I never completed my retreat.
In the space of 36 hours, the church I had left and the church to which I then returned in hurried fashion had changed completely – and as I write I do not know if it will ever return to the ‘normal’ experienced before.
There are two vital but subtle parts (among others) within a Eucharist Service. At the head of the service is the ‘Gathering’ and at the foot the ‘Sending Out’. These represents two movements in our shared worship that tell of our freedom to come together to worship God and the mandate implicit in that worship to ‘go out’ and do something with the blessing just received through the broken body of Jesus Christ. Let us not forget that Christians operate under missio dei – God’s Mission, and that we are called to extend that mission to all nations and people. The word ‘mission’ is derived from the Latin word that means ‘to send out’. The layout of the Eucharistic Liturgy (or put another way, ‘the work of thanksgiving’) is clear in its intent and symbolism: as Christians we come together, give praises to God in a communal act, in which we express love for one another as God’s co-chosen. This directed Anglicans to a shared cup and plate, the sharing of the Peace (the wishing of the ‘best of everything’ to ones with whom we shared it), singing of hymns and other songs, learning together the scripture through sermons and other provisions, the pastoral outworking of that sharing through outreach to the sick and vulnerable, and the wider community heart embodied by the parish – all designed to enable us to be fed and ‘sent out’ in our personal mission before God. This, and for the near-two thousand years before it, has been what it was about in broadest terms.
The old ‘normal’ changed to the new ‘normal’ step by step and almost hour by hour. As it became apparent that this hitherto unknown disease was spreading at a pace beyond anyone’s wildest and most pessimistic predictions, it also became clear that being in proximity to another human might just cost you your life. As I languished in my prayerful sojourn, guidance was published at an alarming rate that began by limiting services, eventually stopping them completely in favour of open churches for private prayer, then on to closed churches and in the end to the call for everyone including priests to keep well away from churches thank you very much. The doors were bolted shut and replaced instead by notices on how to blow your noses safely.
As the lead-priest for one parish (and soon to be lead-priest to a second) I was in the the extra-ordinary position of my seeing my ‘day-job’ evaporate into little more than nervous emails to church folk and hand-wringing. We were in the latter stages of Lent and it was apparent that Easter was in fact utterly crucified. The default position for liturgical priests such as thine unworthy author is to reach for a weighty tome on the subject of ‘how to do a service proper’ in times of extremis – but no such work has been written or published (not even by my friend Dairmaid MacCulloch who writes books like I drink wine). Nowhere anywhere is anything that tells a meagre parson what to do in the event of a full-national and near-international lockdown.
A few of us exist in the strata of human existence that is called ‘tech-savvy’, though my own teenage daughters have much that they can teach me. The ‘what do we do dear?’ of the Cotta-wearing class was met in me and a very few others in the darkened witchcraft of the online world. I remember assuming a recumbent incumbent posture in my church stall and wondering how a good Mass could be said to (then) my iPad. Record something and bodge it on to YouTube – that sort of malarky. Oh, but one’s iPad doesn’t float, so how many kneelers (‘hassocks’ if you are posh) would it take to make a mountain of sufficient height to convey said gadget to a position most conducive to the waving of arms and invoking of Spirits? The answer was, it tuned out in the end, Pete Morley’s flower pedestal, 12 kneelers, three copies of Common Worship Daily Prayer (with its many ribbons) and a Good News Bible. That the church had its own Wifi was a blessing.
Within this process of inner and outer discovery, I had a nagging suspicion that Facebook did a thing called a livestream, but three hours of faff later, I decided that I couldn’t make it work and took a libation. I created a YouTube channel instead – as you do. Long story short, an iPhone instead of an iPad, a hastily hied tripod from Amazon and the guidance from Dr Google on how to use a Facebook livestream meant that on the Feast of Joseph of Nazareth I greeted no-one except my phone in a locked and empty building that itself was surrounded by the new lockdown experience of 1980s Sunday-level eery quiet. Even the planes had stopped. I hated every moment of it, and I was told that it showed. When fully turfed from our churches I moved to the Vicarage Study, and found (by happy coincidence newly decorated in a more appropriate colour than the previous acne-rouge of before) a corner where I could put a chair and small table, a hanky, candle and an icon, mine own self, and get on with saying Mass without episcopal permission (we can only say Mass in a church normally). Easter happened (and for a high-liturgist, no mean feat in a small corner of a room – you try and make the Stripping of the Little Table, the singular Rose of Repose, the desolation and final consumption of the limp wafer on Good Friday, the expectancy of the Easter-vigil with voice-memo recordings of the readings and the exuberance of the Day of Resurrection look good within the confines of a square meter and faltering inter-web signal!) and I did my jolly best.
I have often told the flocks that I was only one step ahead of them with this new technological dependancy to which we were called. On the day Boris told us to stay at home I had never heard of anything called Zoom, had only just mastered live-streaming, was a playing around with this thing called ChurchSuite and feeling overwhelmed by it. It has been an interesting but entirely stressful journey into a an unknown that to this very day remains partially concealed from me.
On this day I ponder the life of the church I remain called to lead (sorry – I have added to my portfolio, make that ‘churches’). As a parish we meet near-weekly on Zoom for virtual coffee-mornings-cum-quizzes which attract a faithful crowd. I have mastered the means to communicate to all members of two electoral rolls be they ‘online’ or ‘off’ (and printing labels is a whole world of pain for me – I ruin five labels for each one printed nicely). We have gathered the youngsters on a couple of occasions to work through finger-prayers whilst the under-threes gurned at the camera (and we have all done it the first time we have video-called, don’t deny it). Our home groups are now online groups and we have provided five or six acts of worship every week since we were locked down. A thrown-together pastoral network teetered but lived, everyone has a book of prayers and services for their use, the youth group gathered its members and did wonderful things, the Finance folk worked out the new reality remotely but successfully, the PCCs all managed to access an online meeting at least once and so it is that we enter an entirely new world.
The parish life that happened solely between the Victorian bricks of its church building will never return to its previous state. Attendance at services is no longer measured by bums-on-pews but by dial-in numbers and internet engagements. Our Sunday services will now cater for three distinct congregations at the same time (in person, on-line, dialled in), each with its own particular needs. I recognise that in my effort to reach out to those ‘offline’ I may have neglected the tinies in our parish families. Will we ever manage to have a sell-out All-Age Service again? What has been the outstanding surprise of all of this is that ‘attendance’ at services, albeit online, have increased by some 400% in measurable terms. We welcomed nearly 800 people into my study for Easter Day although to the untrained eye it was just me in a dress with an oversized candle and a smartphone! We have lost members to the disease that we still haven’t learn to control, couple can’t easily marry and Banns of Marriage can’t take place. Funeral services have been attended by the very few (or none at all) and now singing is the new taboo. You can come into church and I can give you communion so long as I wear proper equipment and get you to sign a waiver that takes liability from me or the PCC if you were to expire the next day. You may yet have to book seats in advance, with apologies if the Lord calls you through the front door and we didn’t expect you. We cannot gather as we did and we cannot be ‘sent out’ as we could before. And there are no raffles.
Despite all, I am optimistic about the future. In London at least over 40% of folk tuned in to a service of some form or another. This tells me that faith is alive, and as points of departure go, not a bad one. I cannot see how I can seat more than 30 people in either church until COViD is no more, but I am encouraged to see that ‘online’ worshippers feel spiritually nourished. As a Surrogate for Marriages I have now met a lot of couples who need a Bishop’s Licence due to a suspension of Banns and all – without exception – have spoken of the relief of a marriage-day that, in its simplicity, makes them happy instead of everyone else. In one of the churches we are readying ourselves to make a permanent installation of live-streaming equipment as this must form part of life going forward. I feel that my courageous/reckless approach to moving into the pandemic as a priest has been blessed by The Lord and and I see a move towards a simpler elemental life of faith – aided by a little ongoing reckless faith. I have seen the levels of generosity and kindness at levels I have never seen in church life before (and where we are, they were pretty jolly good to start with). I have witnessed the end of church consumer-culture to one of ‘thanks for giving us a chance to be before God, Farv although I couldn’t properly hear you and the internet kept cutting out’ and I intend to do that I can to distil and perpetuate the better parts of all of this.
We may have lost so many moments of conventional fellowship, albeit that they have been replaced by new versions. We may be on the brink of financial disaster, but in terms of riches, I cannot think of a time when we enjoyed more of them.
… who dedicates this post to all those from our parishes who left this earth since lockdown and in thanksgiving to all those who played their part in keeping these two ships afloat.
… and no-one mention the Blues Brothers, please.