by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
I refuse to use the term ‘social distancing’ because it expresses something which is already far too prevalent in our country and world.
In recent days as I have read social media, listened to the news, spoken with those working in the criminal justice system and those working with victims of domestic abuse, I have been reminded that all the world’s brokenness comes down to relationship. We know what it is to turn our backs and distance ourselves from neighbour, God and creation.
I have written elsewhere about the theme of ‘returning and remembering’ as we return to a different future treasuring that which we have discovered as life-giving both in the present and the past, and letting go of that which has been diminishing. A word which has been prominent in those reflections is that of solidarity.
During the Civil War in 1643 Gloucester came under siege. The city had sided with Parliament and managed to hold off the Royalist forces not least because a massive mortar broke on discharge. It is said that the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty refers to this huge gun and marks the failure of a re-membering as ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again’. The event is now commemorated each year on Gloucester Day when we glimpse something of what togetherness might look like in all our diversity. People of all ages, languages, backgrounds and political views parade through the streets of the city and it is a day of solidarity. Unique individuals with different stories and views stand shoulder to shoulder in the parade and in the crowds lining the streets. On the surface there is neither physical distancing nor social distancing.
During this time of viral pandemic we have experienced that same solidarity on Thursday evenings when people have stood outside homes in cities, towns and villages clapping and clanging as an expression of gratitude for care and dedication. Yet something even deeper has been going on – an expression of being in this together even amid the paradox of having to learn to be apart and physically distanced. The recent anger and turbulence around Dominic Cummings is rooted in a sense of this being sorely undermined. Whatever the truth of the detail, solidarity and trust has taken a huge hit.
And solidarity is not about sameness or even agreement. It is about how we live a shared commitment to particular values and beliefs. We need this in our re-membering and being put back together for the future.
Part of the mysterious truth about being a follower of Jesus Christ is that it is both intensely personal and yet also about a belonging together – members of one body. It is about a corporate commitment to justice, reconciliation and peace yet lived out amid personal story and unique experiences.
At present we do not know when we will hear once more those words spoken at the introduction to ordination services: ‘The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom’. What we do know is that they are words about the whole Church – diverse people of every age and each with a different story. They are words of solidarity in our calling and in our being.
This traumatic time of Covid-19 has brought that into sharper relief as people have reflected on what it means to be the Church. In the longing for church buildings to be open once again there has been renewed reflection on what it means to gather for worship – what is inclusive and what is exclusive. And the stories of people expressing Christ’s love and hope in many practical ways in local communities has sharpened reflection on what it means to be ‘sent out’ such that ‘we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world’. This has been particularly inspiring when it has been about a ‘doing with’ rather than a ‘doing for.’
It’s going to take hard work and intentional action to learn to live with physical distancing on streets and in classrooms; in places of work and places of leisure; and of course within our church buildings. Yet I believe that not returning to social distancing will be even harder work because it’s the work of the heart and we’ve been living social distancing and broken relationship ever since the beginning of time. Indeed it is writ large for us in the creation narratives of Genesis.
It’s going to take more than a parade on Gloucester Day or a few weeks of clapping on a Thursday night to learn what it means to live a solidarity which is life-giving. And it’s going to take hard work for us to go on discovering what it means for us to be the Body of Christ, the Church, committed to re-membering.
Repentance and forgiveness will be vital, and anger and challenge will continue to have their place alongside praise and encouragement as we strive to reveal the Kingdom of God. Yet as we ‘return and re-member’ it will be the soil of our hearts which will reveal all those things either as signs of the glorious inclusive Kingdom of God or signs of individualistic human pride and selfishness.
This Pentecost ‘come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love.’
As we emerge into the future, physical distancing will inevitably continue to be required but let us not return to the social distancing of the past.