by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
From this weekend, churches have the option, subject to a risk assessment, of reopening their premises for public acts of worship. Over the next few weekends I expect, and indeed hope, that we will be able to undertake simple, practical measures that will reduce the risks of infection at such gatherings, sufficiently to comply with the government requirement that our buildings be Covid secure. Congregation members may stagger their return over a number of Sundays, there will be no grand reopening ceremonies, but physically we will have indeed “gone back”.
Except, there is never any true going back.
The past, even the very recent past, is always a different country. Whilst separated from public worship in our buildings, we have continued the mission of Christ’s Church in different ways. We have proclaimed the Gospel from virtual pulpits we never knew existed, and many have responded in joy. We have nurtured one another in faith, using every technique of telecommunication to deepen our fellowship, share our tears, console our bereavement and relieve our loneliness. We have served the poor and hungry in our communities. We have been stirred to pray and act for justice, so that hungry children will be fed over the summer holidays, the homeless will not be cast back onto the streets, and Black Lives will Matter, both more and to more of us, in the time to come. We have shrunk our carbon footprint, travelling less, buying fewer disposable commodities, and enjoying the sights and sounds of a nature beginning to breathe more easily as many of us have been able to do also.
We are not who we were four months ago. We have lost, lamented, learned, longed and loved. We cannot be squeezed back into our former shape.
When I first began to work with parishes on recruiting new priests, I quickly discovered the huge value of “the vacancy”. It was only when the previous incumbent had left that a parish profile could be drawn up that didn’t simply say, “Same again please, bishop, only 20 years younger”. It was only after eight or nine further months had lapsed that a new vicar could arrive and not be expected to take on every single duty that had accrued to their predecessor. Time needed to pass for things to stop happening, for other practices to cease being unthinkingly presumed; only thus can we make room for the new.
If I were inventing a liturgy for the return to our buildings, it would be to invite each worshipper, new or returning, to make the baptismal renunciations and professions of faith before crossing the church threshold the first time. We enter anew, casting off unsustainable or unwanted habits, discarding long hoarded prejudices, released from behaviours that exhaust and drain our energies. Ready for the future.
My hope and my yearning is that these months of lockdown have readied us to be a Church that treasures its people and its resources enough to release them to where the opportunities and challenges for mission are the greatest; not a Church that seeks to do everything just as we have always done, but to do it more frantically and with fewer assets available than ever. I hope for patterns of ministry that do not tire our clergy and lay leaders to exhaustion, but equip them to expend their energies building the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed; for ways of meeting and ministering that do not tie up so much of our energies in maintaining the wrong buildings in the wrong places; for radical simplification of the bureaucratic hoops we so often have to go through on the way to achieving any significant change.
It would be foolish to pretend that most of us have not been impacted by the stress and strain of these last months. I can hear the siren voice within myself, the voice that wants to go back to things as they were. Maybe just for a year or two, it whispers, a time to rest and regain impetus for the future. And yet I know that to do so would be fatal. Indeed, it would simply add to the burden of exhaustion without offering new hope. Developing new vision and purpose, and doing it now, will bring not only fresh energy but refreshment and renewal. When we are clear how we are going to be different, we will find rest in release from the things we have stopped tiring ourselves out with.
So, I welcome the fact that we will be publishing the Living in Love and Faith resources, and commending them for study and engagement, this autumn. I dare to hope that reading them in the light of our emerging from lockdown will provide fresh insights into who we are, and how we might be the Church better. I welcome the work I see being done to help us focus on what the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion might mean for us both as individuals and as church communities over the next five to ten years. I welcome the fresh energy that lies behind what should be the self-evident phrase that Black Lives Matter.
The next few weeks and months will not only be a time to fling open the doors of our buildings to welcome our people, but a time to fling open our hearts and minds to welcome with equal enthusiasm what the Holy Spirit is yearning to breathe into us.