We Can’t Go Back…to Preserving Bricks & Mortar

by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and Member of General Synod

Nikki

A small group of beleaguered disciples, tired, fearful and disappointed, uncertain about the future, meeting behind closed doors, wistfully reminiscing about the crowds who had at one time gathered with them. Now it’s just the faithful remnant.

 The Holy Spirit comes, and they are transformed, heading out into the public arena, living life fully as Christ’s followers, drawing others to join them by their love for each other and their neighbours, and their accessible, amateurish but heartfelt teaching and worship.

We have all reflected recently on a story something like this over Pentecost. However, what I am describing is not the early church, but rather what I have seen played out in many small congregations across my diocese in these last few months.  In multi-parish rural benefices and urban teams, where previously ten to fifteen committed long term members met in multiple locations for worship, now a hundred or more gather online together, energised and engaged each week, making new friends and attracting others. It’s easier to join a crowd than a clique.

For many years across the country, weary church wardens have with dogged determination, fought to keep regular Sunday services going in their church building, not wanting to betray their predecessors by allowing the church to die on their watch. Failure and local wrath have been constant threats  Then, overnight in March, the doors of every church building were closed, unilaterally. And they were not responsible. It was not their fault. A Kairos moment?

Lockdown was dramatic and shocking for church communities. Emerging from it will be far more nuanced, and no less difficult. Already MPs and journalists are politicising the ‘draconian’ refusal to permit the use of church buildings for private prayer and funerals. Bishops across the country are tweeting  (including my own)!  Passions and anxieties are running high amidst uncertainties and swathes of guidelines for ‘whenever we can reopen’.

Churches will soon be allowed to open again, and that is right. But please let’s not rush back to opening them all.  Church buildings are different, have different purposes and callings, and can sometimes get in the way of God’s people truly being church.  And we have too many of them.

It’s very easy to say. “Open your church building from tomorrow” to gain some support from vocal campaigners.  But what about the tiny rural church with no mains water, where handwashing isn’t possible?  How do you clean an ancient building with nooks and crannies when you can’t slosh the bleach around?  How do you safely open a huge cathedral with multiple entrances and many chapels, when staff are furloughed, closure of cafés and shops and no tourists has caused a financial crisis, and most volunteers are vulnerable or shielding?  Practically there are many issues to be overcome.  The challenges will be met of course.  Clergy and church members will rise to the occasion creatively, just as they have adapted to the constraints of recent months with resilience and faith.

But what about the opportunities of this Kairos moment?  Strategically is it right to go back to dispersed, fragmented and often insular worship in every place?  Surely this is the time to courageously ask the questions few previously dared voice.

Should this church be used for worship each Sunday in the future?  Can we re-designate for occasional use – weddings, funerals, harvest and Christmas?  Can we formally close, and recognise the building’s importance as a local heritage asset, treating it as such rather than trying to meet unrealistic expectations of it becoming a vibrant community hub when we all know in our hearts that this role is filled adequately by the village hall or pub?  Dare we contemplate allowing our building to become perhaps a beautiful ruin?

Place is important of course, and prayed in places are undoubtedly holy.  It is important to have sacred space where we can gather, celebrate the sacraments, reflect amidst beauty.  Buildings where key life events have been marked hold special significance and will always be places of pilgrimage.  But not every church building is beautiful, many are not fit for purpose, they are often in the wrong places where settlements have moved. Some were built for dubious reasons – as follies or status symbols.  One size does not fit all, and we need to grasp the freedom the current closure gives us to treat each case individually.

If congregations and weary wardens can be released to be church, rather than being burdened with the responsibility of preserving bricks and mortar, maybe the new life we have seen emerge in lockdown might blossom and flourish – not forever online – heaven forbid! But in vibrant Christian communities meeting in the most appropriate church building in a grouping, or even in a school hall, focussing their energies and enthusiasm on serving their communities, fed by corporate worship with many others, sharing gifts and skills as they grow in discipleship together.

My theological college principal often reflected that policy is usually at least ten years behind practice in the Church of England.  Re-designating masses of church buildings can, if we are brave to seize the moment, be trialled instinctively as we begin to embrace the new normal. The legislation to make it formal will take Chancellors and Archdeacons and General Synod many years and tie us all in knots, but let’s not be deterred.  We cannot go back to a uniform approach to church buildings draining the life from the church.  Let’s invest in some, reinvent others, and dare to let some quietly stay closed for ever.

Posted in Coronavirus, Nikki Groarke, We Can't Go Back... | 9 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to Breathlessness

by the Rt Revd Philip North, Bishop of Burnley


Philip


‘I can’t breathe.’

Following the lynch-mob style killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, his dying words have become the cry of dispossessed and impoverished BAME communities first in the States and then across the globe. Long decades in which they have suffered on a daily basis from structural racism, inequality of opportunity and the denial of their personhood has exploded into a mighty welling up of anger which has left the Trump administration floundering and governments around the world struggling to keep up.

‘I can’t breathe.’

That is also the cry of COVID patients, a condition which fills the lungs with fluid such that the breath is forced out of a person. At first we were told this pandemic would be a crisis for everyone. Already it is revealing itself to be a crisis for the poor. Those from urban areas and BAME communities are dying in hugely disproportionate numbers. And as the massive economic impact of lockdown reveals itself, it will inevitably be the poor who pay an unfair share of the cost, for the impact of crisis is always delegated to those who are already deprived.

‘I can’t breathe.’

Unspoken, spoken then hashtagged, this is becoming the cry of all who feel constricted and suffocated by poverty or injustice.

‘I can’t breathe.’

Those are not recorded amongst the last words spoken by Jesus from the cross, but they might have been, for crucifixion, like COVID, works by forcing the air out of a person’s lungs. Every breath becomes such unspeakable agony that eventually the body has to give up trying. On the cross, Jesus identifies himself with all who cry out, ‘I can’t breathe.’

Yet his breathlessness has purpose, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,’ Jesus says at the table of the Last Supper (John 16, 7). By undergoing breathlessness, Jesus unleashes for us the irresistible, life-giving breath of the Spirit who renews all creation.

The Spirit’s breath, released at Pentecost, is the gift that Jesus gives to his Church. So in a post-COVID world Christians must be utterly single-minded in breathing that breath over a world that cries out, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Nothing else will matter.

First, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of life. During crisis, through generous service and imaginative use of the online environment, we have made contact with a new fringe. What we need now is a new evangelism in which we live and speak the Gospel with joy, an evangelism motivated not by institutional survival but by the passionate desire that people might breathe.

And this new evangelism must begin amongst the poor, because that is the place from where renewal always springs. Dioceses are going to have difficult decisions to make about deployment and pastoral organisation in the years ahead, but such decisions must honour our commitment to inner city, outer estate and post-industrial communities. If now becomes the time when we disproportionately withdraw people or buildings from places of poverty, then God is dishonoured and the Gospel is fatally undermined.

The lesson of history is clear and consistent. An evangelism that prioritises the powerful does not work and cannot last. Instead we need to hear the voice of the breathless. We need to speak good news to the poor. Our best leaders, our richest resources, our finest theologians, our most engaging preachers must be offered to the places where life is hardest. Only then we will re-engage a nation with the person of Jesus.

Next, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of justice. The COVID pandemic has laid bare the harsh levels of social and economic inequality which so damage our common life, which deny opportunity, which take away hope and which lead to countless costly social ills from poor health to spiralling prison populations.

The action of local churches in addressing inequality through acts of charity has been heroic in this pandemic. But charity can be a fool without justice. Foodbanks, for example, merely prop up innately unjust structures unless we campaign to change those factors which have rendered them necessary: low pay, unfair benefits, family breakdown. As UK churches, our voice in naming injustice and calling for political and economic reform has for too long been inconsistent and disjointed. We need a united Christian voice: perhaps a new ecumenical body, which can campaign consistently and vigorously.

But if we are to address injustice nationally we must name it within our own structures. The vast wealth disparities between dioceses cannot be acceptable in the future as some dioceses go to the wall whilst others fall back on eye-watering levels of historic wealth. Harder still will be naming and addressing the deep-seated racism that still exists within our own common life and which prevents so many BAME Christians from breathing. We have no authority to name injustice nationally if we are so wantonly failing to put our own house in order.

And third, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of peace. The fallout of this crisis is likely to be deep and sustained economic depression with concomitant pressures on relationships at every level. The church, filled with the Spirit, is called to model the new humanity. We are challenged to live differently under the bonds of love, valuing every human person as a child of God. That is the peace that the Spirit breathes.

If we are to do that effectively, we urgently need to do better at living with difference. We must find ways to conduct debates such that they do not destroy relationships and leave us too exhausted to engage with the world. A nation that is crying out for breath cannot afford the luxury of a divided and quarrelsome church, obsessed only with its own internal wrangles. Those who look to us seeking the breath life should find a community of peace. Without that all our words and prayers will be hollow hypocrisy.

‘I can’t breathe.’

It is the ultimate cry of despair. As those filled with the Spirit’s breath, if we can hear and respond, then perhaps this terrible crisis can be the dawn of a new age of faith.

Posted in Bishop of Burnley, Coronavirus, Politics, Racism, Safeguarding, Social Justice, We Can't Go Back... | 11 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to Pretending!

by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Chair of OneBodyOneFaith and Member of General Synod

peter leonard

Like many others I have experienced a ‘Corona Coaster’ of emotions during lockdown. One day I’m coping and am positive and on other days it simply seems black and I just want to hide away. I’ve known for some time I would be writing this, and I have thought and prayed about it, resulting in a dozen different ideas for what it could look like and what it would try to say. It has proved to be one of the most difficult pieces to actually commit to paper and I suspect this is because I am grappling with some really unpalatable truths that perhaps I have not been completely honest about before. Has the current pandemic highlighted the deep divisions which exist within the institutional church and is it too flawed to be rescued? Has the Anglican ability to ‘fudge’ issues finally run out of credibility?

The church has also been on a corona coaster of ups and downs. I’ve seen churches work closely with local communities to support the most vulnerable through a range of practical and spiritual ways. Faith has been lived out and worship offered to God by caring for the sick, the lonely and the vulnerable.

There has also been unhealthy levels of competition and judgment between clergy and others in terms of the worship they have offered online or offline and the service they have given to their community. There have been deeply unpleasant and very public arguments on social media about whether churches should be open or not and the significance of our buildings. Even during a global pandemic, homophobia remains a given in the church and I wrote about this here. Most recently the appalling murder of George Floyd in the USA brings us face to face once again with the systemic racism which we cannot hide from in our own country and church.

So, what is it that I am suggesting we don’t go back to? I don’t want us to go back to simply putting up with these divisions and injustices. I don’t want us to go back to being dishonest about them and pretending that they aren’t there or that they aren’t massively significant, deeply damaging and part of the reason so many people do not want to engage with the church institution in its current form.

As Chair of OneBodyOneFaith I insist on positive campaigning, not simply bemoaning our lot but suggesting and living out ways for things to be better. What do I need to say to drag myself out of this ‘pit of despair’ I have landed in? The answer for me is in the story of the early followers of Jesus in Acts chapter 2. Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit we read that the followers of Jesus:

42 …devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They were devoted to each other, a strong word which implies a deep commitment and level of relationship. These people sold their possessions to support those most in need, creating a way of living which ensured everyone had enough. What are the depths of relationships in our churches? Are we devoted to each other and what would that look like if we were?

They also devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Learning assumes two things, that we don’t know everything and that we can be better. When a church community or leader assumes they know everything then power and people are abused. We are constantly learning including our faith and our knowledge and experience of God. We have to learn to express, to proclaim and live out our faith, the gospel, afresh in each generation. We now find within our generation we need to work out what faith means in a pandemic situation and in the aftermath of it.

This is a picture of a local community with a way of life so attractive that people were drawn to it and wanted to be part of it. And let’s be honest – who wouldn’t want to be part of it? This is a church who:

  • were devoted to one another
  • wanted to learn and improve
  • cared for one another and ensured everyone had enough
  • worshipped together, in the temple and in their own homes – every day!
  • and ate together – they were generous, and they were glad

Perhaps my difficulty in writing this is acknowledging that I am part of a church institution which has too often failed to live like that.

I don’t want to go back to propping up an institution which is flawed, which too often ignores injustice and sometimes even perpetuates it. I want to go back to being a follower of the way. I want to live my life based on the life of Jesus Christ with love at the core, the very heart of everything.

Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life. I want to follow that way, live by that truth and receive that life.

 

 

 

Posted in Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Peter Leonard, We Can't Go Back... | 16 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to not Caring about Care

by Alison Webster, Deputy Director of Mission (Social Responsibility) in the Diocese of Oxford and author of ‘Found Out‘ and ‘You Are Mine

Alison Webster

I have spent a lot of time recently looking out of windows. Commuting long distances by car is no more. Attending endless meetings in small rooms with other people is no more. Work has become a matter of inhabiting an armchair at home, looking out of the window, doing mental work. And sitting at my desk looking through Microsoft windows, at a myriad of collegial faces, gathering in the unity of Zoom.

I have embraced a life of staying put. I have been forced to pause. I now see from the inside out. Am I being turned inside out?

As I look at the world outside my window, I notice things inside myself. I become acutely aware of things I have valued, often without even noticing that I valued them. I see that my life is an ableist life. It has the marks of an uncritical participation in the assumptions of mobility. It is a life where I ricochet from one fixed point in the diary to the next; careening from one damn thing to another, in a world of exteriority. looking from the inside out, I start to see things differently.

As I look at the world outside my window, I hear stories. And some shocking inequalities are brought newly into focus.

There is the story of Vivienne, a care worker who does not feel valued. Her workplace is terrifying. She works for the national living wage of £8.10 per hour, nights and weekends, then comes home to the one room she shares with her young son. The kitchen and bathroom are shared with 10 other adults and several children. There can be no ‘social distancing’ here. This is not temporary accommodation; she’s been here for three years. The rent is £600 a month, more than half of her earnings. She would welcome protective equipment, testing, recognition, decent pay, secure working conditions, and proper training and support. Her dream is for her son’s happiness.

And then there is Tabitha, also a care worker. She became ill with Covid 19 early on. She couldn’t breathe or speak. She was off sick for 28 days with symptoms, but without income. If not for the daily hot lunches brought to her by a faith group, she wonders how she would have survived. Now back at work she walks an hour each way because she can’t afford public transport.

And finally, the story of a friend of mine, a mental health care worker and a poet who, long before the current crisis, raged frequently and eloquently about ‘the neoliberal “caring” failure’. She says, ‘The failure of mental health services to adequately respond to the most broken psyches in society is a function of the lack of value placed on the complexities of humanity. The lived wisdom of authentically responding to a suffering person is not to be found in a manual, nor a diagnosis based on a medicalised reality. It is to be found in the heart. The heart of the human being doing a 13 hour shift, getting kicked, punched, spat at, and being top-down managed by folk with one eye on the profit-making balance sheet, and both feet firmly placed within the global market of the “caring” industry.’

In her brilliant book, ‘Radical Help’, Hilary Cottam says this, ‘Good care…is emotional labour: it is intensive, exhausting, sometimes lonely and boring, but always about deep human connection and relationships. Our current Welfare institutions cannot provide care. Worse, they cannot even speak a language with which we might begin to think warmly and humanly about what is needed. Caring for each other is not about efficiency or units of production. It is about human connection, our development, and at the end our comfort and dignity.’

And now we have a window. A window to achieve political change. We cannot go back to accepting the structures of an industry that monetises frailty and drives the hardest, leanest, meanest possible bargain.

As individuals and families we have taken to the streets weekly to clap our carers, whilst simultaneously tolerating a system that has put those same carers at risk of dying. And they have died. At twice the rate of the general population.

Citizens UK has launched its #LivingWage4carers campaign, centring around the shocking impact of Covid-19 on the social care sector. Together with an alliance of organisations and senior figures, Citizens is calling for a new financial settlement, raising all employees up to the real Living Wage. Let’s join in with that.

Let’s join in knowing that this is a start, but it is not enough. It is nowhere near enough.

We need an economy that reflects a different reality. One that serves not just the ableist autonomy of the few, but the vulnerability and interdependence of the many. An economy based on good love. Good love invests time. Good love connects. Good love brings us out of ourselves. Good love recognises that everyone has needs, and everyone has something precious to give. We need to move towards this economy now. Covid 19 has taught us this. It has shown us the need to de-atomise ourselves, so that all of us get to participate in the world outside our windows, even if we cannot go outside.

Music in Podcast provided by Ben Okafor (used with permission)

Photo by Amaka Okafor 

 

 

Posted in Alison Webster, Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, We Can't Go Back... | 3 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to Social Distancing

by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester

Rachel

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.

 

 

 

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We Can’t Go Back…to Pre-Judging Our “Good Samaritans”

by Dr Jamie Harrison, a GP in Durham, Research Fellow in Healthcare and Religion at Durham University and the Chair of the General Synod’s House of Laity

Jamie

Since lockdown, I have spent an hour or so each week on a Skype call to a colleague, a young Spanish GP based at a former ‘steel works’ town in County Durham. She is invariably cheerful and encouraging, despite it snowing in mid-May; her place of work last year was Alicante! She tells me about her complex clinical cases, and I ask about her family and friends back in Spain. We compare notes, as I trawl back over my rusty medical knowledge; she is very patient with me. We agree that medicine is difficult and full of uncertainty. I hope I do some good.

Last week another doctor, Dr Poornima Nair, became the first female GP to die of Covid-19 in the UK. She had moved from India in 1994, working first in Gynaecology and then in General Practice not far from my home. A friend of mine had been her GP Trainer and he told me how excellent she was, both as a doctor and as a person. One of her patients described her as ‘a very conversational doctor. She had a deep and loving care for human beings in general. She worked entirely for the care and welfare of people,’ as the Guardian newspaper noted. She was aged 56, and had devoted the last 26 years of her working life to the NHS. Her son Varun noted that ‘memories of her life and sacrifices will continue to inspire us.’

So I am faced with the question of how the example and sacrifice of others might change me and might change others, as we move into an uncertain future. I started with doctors, because I am one, but equally it could be nurses, care home staff, bus and taxi drivers, shop workers – the list goes on. These are folk who have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 onslaught; many have died, and too often they come from BAME communities. Others have come to be with us from countries near and far in Europe. Will we value them more, pay them better, and protect them more effectively from the next attack by this or a subsequent virus?

As Christians, we can be foolish enough to think that we have a monopoly on virtue or on service to others. Perhaps we need to learn some humility? Certainly, the bit of the global church I am in has been pretty lamentable in its willingness to see the good in others and to look beyond its own tribalism. What others can teach us about goodness, service, and selfless kindness ought to challenge our parochialism and self-satisfaction; but will it? I am conscious that the economic pressures we will face may risk further scapegoating and name-calling of those perceived as ‘different from me’.  So, I need to keep asking the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – and not just here in the UK. It seems that some questions just won’t go away: it might be someone from Spain or India; equally, it might be you.

In Jesus’s parable, his journeying Samaritan is both foreigner and benefactor. He risks the danger of the open road, with its evidence of recent violence and of an uncertain safety. Like his contemporary equivalents, he refuses to let the possible dangers override his desire to offer compassion and empathy, as well as practical action. Without the benefits of PPE, he engages with the wounded traveller, takes him to a place of safety, and offers to cover the on-going financial costs of his care. He is, indeed, a ‘Good Samaritan’. And those who hear are shocked, not because he is good, but because he is a Samaritan, a foreigner.

In what lies ahead for us during these coronavirus days, months, or years, we can either seek to develop or to regress. We have the choice of going back to tired stereotypes of ‘us and them’, or of partnering with those whose very difference inspires and creates the common good. Such differences go beyond the traditional delineations of colour, class, and creed. The so-called ‘foreigner’ in our midst is found in many guises, and not just in relation to place of birth. I suspect it is only through our own self-examination and willingness to embrace humility that we can become what it means to be ‘good’.  The Samaritan of the parable does not seek the limelight or try to garner praise. He does what he does because that is he who he is. His willingness to be made vulnerable, putting himself at risk and then expressing his generosity, is characteristic of his very essence.

In recalibrating our perception of others, the examples of goodness in our midst are striking. Will we find ourselves changed by the example of the Dr Poornima Nairs or will we just turn back to our old ways? Only time will tell.

 

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We Can’t Go Back….to Power Games & Inequality

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Author, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation

Rosie Haarper

In France, apparently, one of the biggest worries about lockdown was how single Parisienne women would cope: all alone in a small flat and no partner. No dates, no secret affairs, no sex. All the assumptions were that these women would go into melt down. The framework of their lives and their relationships had been undone – it would not end well.

Turns out many young single women in France have loved the shutdown. All the hectic man- (or woman-) pleasing internal drivers had been challenged. They enjoyed freedom from the pressure to have sex, they swapped sophistication for simplicity, they got in touch with how to be self contained and not dependent their partner. To everyone’s surprise it is OK – more than OK, it is very good.

It is possible that as we emerge from isolation some of this self discovery will remain and the young single French woman will have a better life.

This tale is an example of what Richard Rohr describes in The Wisdom Pattern as the process we are always experiencing in life, but which is technicolour at the moment: Order, Disorder, Reorder.

Order is the pattern we thought we knew. The familiar. Some of us loved it, some of us found it had dark and controlling elements that needed change, but it was what we knew. It was life as we had learnt to live it.

Then came the big Disorder. Present joys became past memories. Of course we fear it. Not just for the physical danger, but because it feels like anarchy. It teeters on the edge of chaos, of total melt down. We fear getting sucked into a vortex of unknowing.

Let’s be honest here; both in society and within the Church at large we were already struggling. Struggling with the age of Quantum Physics where what we thought was linear and certain was, it transpires, nothing of the sort.

Mystery, not knowing, holding multiple truths – all this was stretching our religious imagination. Around the edges interesting thinkers were rediscovering ineffable, unknowable layers of faith, whilst at the centre some pretty desperate measures were being taken to sure up the literal against the flow away from certainty .

Now of course everything is virtual. Even the bread and wine. We shouldn’t be surprised. Pentecost tells us the virtual world is vibrant and powerful. Jesus is very much with us but we can’t see or touch him.

This period of Disorder might be all sorts of things. It’s too soon to tell. What we can see is that the biggest mistake the church made in its response to Covid-19 was rooted in fear of chaos.

As a society we have a contract with one another. We elect leaders who make decisions which some like and some dislike, but mostly we obey even the rules we think are mistaken. So our Government tells us what to do, and although we are not all confident that the best decisions are being made we abide by the rules.

In the Church of England it seems our leaders thought the church worked this way too.

Mimicking the Government they issued rules and regulations, forgetting that their relationship with their flock is different. They do not rule over us, but rather are shepherds whose calling is to offer hope and inner depth and strength through our faith in God.

A bewildered nation expected words of lament, of comfort, of inspiration. Alas, although they were there, they got drowned out by the micro-management of Church buildings. We actually only needed to be told to apply the same rules as everyone else!

So it fell to the local to inhabit the Disorder and it has done so in many wonderful ways. The edges between church and community got lovely and smudgy and people lived their faith by loving and helping one another. Some may think virtual services are a bit naff and amateurish but they are rather gloriously filled with heart and courage.

Well, one day we will realise that the era of Covid-19 has passed. A Reordering has happened. Most people will want to go back to how it was before but of course that cannot be.

I can tell you how I would like the new order to look. How I would love the church to be where every human being is loved and valued equally. Where anyone who was in any way different from the majority need never fear rejection or judgement from other Christians. I would love to see the choking tendrils of power, politics, entitlement, the class system to be unwrapped from around the heart of the Church of England. Where those who had been abused received loving care and just restoration. I would love to see us less obsessed by ourselves and more obsessed by our neighbour. As you might imagine I could go on…….

What I think will happen is that we will make every good effort to carry on as before – and slowly the truth will emerge. The financial model, already strained to breaking point will prove unsustainable. Quite possibly the church in every parish model is bust. The trust of the people in a National Church, already horribly compromised by its internal moral failure to treat LGBTI+ people, women or abuse survivors honourably is gone forever and its place on the national and political stage will be seriously challenged.

There will need to be a journey, probably accelerated by this crisis, which will involve letting go of a model of the Church of England which was probably always a fantasy anyway.

I would like to think that a leaner, healthier, more equal community will emerge – a church that is much closer to the poorest, most marginalised in our society. More present in housing estates across the country and less bound up in Bishop’s palaces and London clubs.

I don’t think this is impossible, indeed God could well be in this new destination. I fear, however, that for many, it will hurt like hell to get there.

Posted in Coronavirus, Establishment, Human Sexuality, Politics, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, We Can't Go Back... | 18 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to Our Old Familiar Cages!

by the Revd Tim Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark and Member of General Synod

Tim Goode

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’ John 10.9

The theologian and author Martin Laird[1] shares a story of walking across a moor with a friend who had four dogs. As they walked, three of the dogs would run out across the moor, leaping over creeks and chasing rabbits and joyfully exploring their environment. But one of the dogs would only run in a small circle right in front of his owner. No matter how many miles they walked or how far afield the other dogs went, this dog would only run in a tight circle very close to them. Laird asked him why, and he replied:

“This dog was kept for his entire life prior to coming to me in a very small cage. His body has left the cage, but his mind still carries it with him. For him, the world outside the cage does not exist, and so no matter how big and beautiful the moor, he will never run out across it. I bring him here so he can breathe the fresh air, but he’s still running circles in his cage.”

During this season of pandemic I have found that many of my own mental cages have been well and truly rattled, and their gates have been flung open.

My parents live a considerable distance away and are both in their late 70s. I have noticed how this pandemic has drawn my attention far more keenly to their vulnerability and focused on my desire to be alongside and support them through this bewildering and unprecedented time.

Though, in our pre-pandemic age, my parents had embraced modern technology up to a point, it has taken our present lockdown for me to encourage them to embrace video formats such as FaceTime and Zoom as a means of communication. As a result it has been deeply reassuring not just to hear that they are both in good health, but to see that they are both in good health as well. These video conversations have brought us so much closer and have been as much a support to me as they have for my parents.

But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and step up and help my parents embrace video communication?

Since my ordination I have dutifully said the daily offices, with one or two members of the congregation, and I have understood that part of my priestly ministry is to say the daily offices on behalf of my parish and worshipping community as they go out to love and serve the Lord, living out their priestly ministries in the workplace, in the home or whatever context they find themselves.

But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and acknowledge that, through our online worship, many of our worshipping communities wish for a similar rhythm, a daily space and reminder to place God at the very centre of all that they do? Why had I only offered my parishioners the church building as the place for these daily services when I knew that it was not feasible or possible for so many to access the church during the week? I knew before the pandemic that the daily offices could be brought into their homes, their digital devices and to their places of work, so why did it take a pandemic for me to act?

As the Disability Advisor for the Southwark Diocese, I have the privilege of being alongside people of extraordinary faith who have all too often been denied access to their local parish worshipping communities. I have observed the existence of online church before this crisis, but I have also heard the cries of frustration of so many who, through no fault of their own, find themselves excluded from their local parish church community.

But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and seek to bring the worship of the local parish church to those who are unable to be physically present and in doing so to actively create opportunities and spaces for all to serve and to minister, regardless of age and ability?

It has become patently clear. I cannot and will not go back to how things were. These cages have been rattled and their gates have been flung open. I do not want to be like the fourth dog, I wish to run out across the moor, and be open to new horizons, new possibilities.

The Church of England is going to be a very different church when we finally all return to our church buildings. For too long we have built cages around ourselves to feel safe and secure. The pandemic has forced us to respond to Jesus’ invitation to open the gates of our cages and relate to the world as it is, rather than as we would want it to be. As Jesus says in John 10.9, I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Jesus is the gate out of our many cages, out of our hardened hearts. As we finally accept this, that Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle, and love, may we as a church be empowered to step out of our cages and boldly embrace the ‘new normal’ with confidence and hope, rather than retreat back into cages of fear and cynicism.

I for one don’t want to retreat back into my own old familiar cages once this pandemic is done. And neither do I want the Church of England to do so either. As the saying goes, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.” As we journey through this pandemic together, God is clearly revealing to us that he loves us far too much to leave us as we are.

[1] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land. Oxford University Press 2006, page 19

Posted in Coronavirus, Disability, Tim Goode, We Can't Go Back... | 3 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…to Being Focused on Our Own Significance

by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford

Nicholas Henshall

“…let me be employed for you or laid aside for you” – John Wesley.

John Wesley’s covenant prayer is one of the finest pieces of Christian writing in English. And one of the most devastating. I do not want to be “laid aside”, even for God. I do not want to confront the vulnerabilities that this might reveal. Like Bob the Builder, my life is built around agency, the capacity to act. “Can we do it? Yes! We can!”

So, the experience of exile – from our church buildings, our normal patterns, our capacity – is a fascinating and unsettling journey, an unusual Easter season of fasting. Even as the different elements are changing, I am keenly aware that we are journeying towards an unknown future. Kierkegaard’s great line “we have to live life forwards but only understand it backwards” (which I am sure he said in far more elegant Danish) illustrates something important about the unknowability of the destination. This should be familiar territory – we pray daily “Thy kingdom come…” with little idea what the kingdom is going to look like.

Reflecting on the last two months there are many things I have learned. I am delighted to discover, heaven forbid, that many congregations can exercise exemplary pastoral care for one another without clerical intervention. I am excited and daunted by the apparent success of our live-streamed worship and teaching. And as someone who normally receives communion daily, I have been surprised how easy it has been to let that go, and to rest simply in the robust rhythm of the daily prayer.

The things I do not want to go back to have little to do with the details of Cathedral or church life. Number one is homelessness. It is extremely moving to see one of our most extreme local heroin addicts in her right mind because she is now receiving proper accommodation, assessment and care. St Mungo’s charity challenges us to embrace this once in a lifetime opportunity to revolutionize care for rough sleepers. No going back.

But what I really want the Church to learn from Covid-19 is to let go of our sense of our significance. We desperately need to shed this and its shabby outcomes. Robert Warren, former Evangelism Officer for the Church of England, put it most simply in his comment: “the Church of England – a minority community with a majority complex”. Just as in personal ministry wreckage occurs when the ego intrudes, so it is when the corporate ego of the Church intrudes. As Dean David Ison suggested last week, the more anxious we become about our own significance and our need to control, something quite different from the joy, simplicity and mercy of the Gospel emerges.

The New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado urges us to recognise that Christian faith is “different, odd, and even objectionable…..”. A Church that has national and diocesan bureaucracies out of proportion to their mission and fails to fund the poorest communities adequately needs to think radically about its priorities. As many dioceses and Cathedrals face extraordinarily challenging financial futures, the present is a fantastic opportunity to do some practical theology in response to discover what “different, odd, and even objectionable” might look like for us.

Over the last seven weeks, praying the daily office alone for the first time in 32 years has made me acutely aware of the biblical themes of weakness and vulnerability, and of how we hide from them. Our success narratives make weakness and vulnerability difficult to notice. Why, for instance, does even the NRSV translate the word “slave” as “servant”? It happens again and again on the lips of Mary, on the lips of Jesus, on the lips of Paul. In the same way we happily sing “God of power and might” at the Eucharist when the words “power” and “might” do not actually figure in the original text. The traditional “Lord God of hosts” is both suitably vague and more accurate.

The word has struck me most is “almighty”. It trips off the tongue effortlessly again and again in prayer. But “almighty” hardly ever occurs in the Bible. The Hellenistic Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible chose it for their Greek version of “El Shaddai”. But that is a Hebrew name for God of completely uncertain meaning. Apart from its appearance in one Old Testament quotation in Paul (2 Corinthians 6.18), the word “almighty” only occurs in a single New Testament book: Revelation.

It is the omnipresence of “almighty” in non-biblical prayers, hymns and worship songs that has given it pre-eminence as a name for God way beyond its biblical currency. This suits our self-image, our desire for significance. “Almighty” is exactly the kind of God we would love to believe in at a time like this.

And yet it is the God of weakness and vulnerability who stands at the centre of New Testament faith. Luke 24 and John 20 go out of their way to tell us that the risen Christ is still wounded.

As we approach Ascension Day, it is worth checking out stained glass windows, statues, and paintings for the feast. If Christ is ascending unwounded, then the artist has completely missed the point. Of the many modern works of art in Chelmsford Cathedral, the figure of the blackened, naked, emaciated, risen and ascended Christ tells me everything I need to know about the vulnerability of God.

This is familiar territory, and there is a large body of contemporary writing about weakness and vulnerability. But that itself can contribute to our illusions. John D Caputo’s broadside at much of our rhetoric is worth hearing. Theology, he says “is, on the one hand, the locus of the most divine discourses on the weakness of God, even as, on the other hand, it is too much in love with power, constantly selling its body to the interests of power, constantly sitting down to table with power in a discouraging contradiction of its own good news. The more it talks about weakness, the more we can be sure it has power up its sleeve.” (The Weakness of God pp 7-8).

This gap between rhetoric and reality issues us with a startling invitation to let go of our significance, our self-importance. This period of being laid aside as a Church, this time of exile, offers us an extraordinary opportunity to own up, to face ourselves as we really are, and to learn to minister in a genuine way out of our weakness and our vulnerability.

Covid-19 invites us to confront our obsession with our own significance; our rhetoric about leadership (another word completely absent from the New Testament); and our obsession with success.

Posted in Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Martyn Percy, Nicholas Henshall | 8 Comments

We Can’t Go Back…But We Can Say Sorry

by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley,  retired healthcare Chaplain, researcher and co-author of “This is My Body” and “Transfaith”

tinabeardsley

On the 27th March 2020 the Guardian newspaper published ‘A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future’.

It was written by the Italian novelist, Francesca Melandri.’ At that point the UK had been in lockdown a mere three days, while Italy was already three weeks into theirs.

We’d watched on our television screens shocking scenes from Italy of make-shift field-hospital wards, medical staff barely able to cope with the rising numbers of Covid-19 patients, and rows of coffins lined up in churches waiting to be buried. ‘We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time’, wrote Melandri, ‘just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us.’ Her letter warned us what to expect next as we tried to abide by the government’s warning that we should ‘stay at home.’

Amongst the experiences that she thought still awaited us, some – like not sleeping well and an unstoppable online social life – had already begun for many of us. So too, for me, had this particular one, which leapt out at me from the page of her article: ‘Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them, “How are you doing?”’

As it happened, on the very day that we  had gone into lockdown I’d emailed two friends to say how sorry I was about a recent rift over certain business protocols within the organisation to which we had all belonged, and which had led to my resignation. I wasn’t apologising for resigning, which I still consider the most prudent thing to have done in the circumstances. I was sorry though that I’d been motivated largely by fear of the possibility of personal financial liability. I’d acted responsibly but also fearfully. Yet what had seemed important then looked fairly trivial now compared to the fear of dying that many of us are feeling and I needed to say sorry. Unspoken, of course, was the thought ‘I’m telling you this in case I or you don’t survive this pandemic.’

Being in lockdown I’ve found that past and present can telescope. Maybe social media plays a part. On Facebook, old friends and colleagues mingle with your current social circle and everyone shares in the same conversation. Which is why, I suppose, my 2020 resignation began to blur a little in my mind with my exit the previous year from the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project. I set out my reasons for that at the time in the Church Times and they haven’t changed.

I don’t regret that resignation either, but I do feel extremely sorry that it happened and the circumstances that led to it. No doubt fear played a part on that occasion too. Well, I’m sure it did.

The Church of England’s conversations, processes and guidance about sexuality and gender identity have gone on for decades. Maybe this was partly intended to induce fatigue and to numb us with boredom! Recently, though, the pace has become more frantic and debate frenzied and shrill. It all feels very fearful, with things said online that can’t be unsaid, and that people might want to say sorry for now. I hope so, as apology along with mutual recognition of the sorry state we’re in seem necessary steps towards the reconciliation we all claim to want and to live by.

It’s often said that apology by itself is not enough: that saying ‘sorry’ for the way the Church has treated LGBTI+ people in the past should lead to structural changes that will enable everyone to feel safe in our churches. This may well be true, but saying sorry, and meaning it – because you acknowledge the sorry state of things – seem essential preliminaries to organisational change.

Thethree books I’ve shared in writing over the last five years or so all demonstrate that, while some churches are brilliant at supporting trans people and their loved ones, others have failed miserably. That’s just one example. There’s so much more we all need to say sorry for – and mean it.

Melandri’s letter to the UK, written in love to prepare us for what was to come, only confirmed what many of us were already experiencing – given the scenes of suffering that we’d seen in other countries, images of people’s lives suddenly cut short. I was especially touched by her paragraph about addressing past disagreements, but by the time I read it I’d already said sorry to my friends. Remarkable that it should take a pandemic, life in the shadow of death, to make us do this kind of thing. Or perhaps not. It would be sad to lose this sense of urgency when things ‘return to normal’.

We cannot go back – to change what happened in the past – but we can say sorry for our part in creating the state we are in; and then try to do something about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Christina Beardsley, Coronavirus, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, We Can't Go Back... | Leave a comment