by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia, Member of General Synod and Director of the Ozanne Foundation
We’ve heard much from the government in recent days about the importance of looking after our physical and mental health. It’s one of the reasons we are still able to go outside and exercise and a primary reason why our parks and gardens are being asked to stay open for as much as they can.
It’s good to know that there are voices at the ‘top table’ speaking out for our well-being in this way. But it has left me wondering who is championing guarding the nation’s spiritual health?
Maybe it’s not seen as so important. Maybe it’s seen as a “nice to have” amongst those “who think like that”, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as our mental or physical health.
I recognise that most of us who are already part of worshipping communities know where we can now go for support and sustenance (even if some miss physical services in their local church), but what of those who don’t? What of those who are going through crises of fear, doubt, anxiety or loss – and just want a place to run to? Where can they find sanctuary? Where can they “find God”?
A friend told me this week how she had seen an elderly man approach the main door of their local cathedral only to find it locked. He had banged on the heavy wooden door with his fists before putting his head in his hands and wandering off in tears, obviously upset. Had he just lost a loved one? Had he just heard some worrying news? We don’t know. But we do know that his over-riding memory will be of trying to connect with God at a time of need and finding himself “shut out”.
Research has shown that in times of crises people “retreat” to their places of sanctuary, where they feel safe and secure. For many in our nation, research has also shown, that is still their local (established) church. It is a physical place where they know they can find spiritual sustenance and refuge – a place that has weathered various storms through the ages, from World Wars to Black Death plagues. It is often done at a time of great mental stress and anguish, such as that we are experiencing right now, and is a time when they are keen to reach out and connect with the Divine.
Now of course we need to be extremely careful about social distancing and indeed of any transmission risks, but surely we can find a way of keeping our larger churches open with clearly marked spaces indicating where people can stand and pray? Rather like our local supermarkets which have clearly marked footprint stickers on the ground showing where people should stand to queue, surely we could mark just as clearly where people can kneel or stand to pray? Could we not then also have volunteers, or indeed paid church staff if we still have them, on hand to wipe down the handrails and pews afterwards to minimise infections. They could also monitor and restrict numbers entering as well as the time spent inside.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we reinstate church services – that to me is a completely different matter. For those of us who already have a faith know that we can connect with our loving God without the need for walls or pews. No, here I’m talking about a way of enabling the “gateway” to remain open – the lifesaving rescue ring to be still visible on the shore during the heavy storm.
I personally believe that our spiritual health holds the key to our mental, emotional and indeed physical health. We are body, mind, soul and spirit. To be so dismissive of the latter is, I fear, a tragedy and one that we will learn the impact of over many years to come.
Please, I pray, may we think again and find a way of creating a sanctuary for people to run to in order to connect – perhaps for the first time – with their Creator God, the source of love and the giver of hope. It is, after all, Easter – where the message of new life is more poignant than ever.