NOW that we are in the second month of lockdown, it is a good time to begin to reflect on what we have learned during this strange period of social isolation, and how we might do things differently when we are able to reopen our church buildings and resume gathering for public worship.
The experience of the Israelites in exile in the sixth th century BC is a good starting point for our reflection. We have not been carried off into exile by an invading army, but, like the Israelites, we have had a significant experience of dislocation and isolation and been cut off from our usual place(s) of worship.
When the Israelites first went into exile after the destruction of the temple, they had a massive sense of dislocation and loss: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137.4). As the years went by, however, the experience of exile turned out to have many positives: they re-engaged with their founding stories, they repented and turned away from idols, they studied the law and wrote down much of the Old Testament in its present form. And when, in time, Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to the Promised Land, the trickle back was fairly slow — it seems to have taken at least a century.
The returning Israelites were also less attached to their central shrine. It took the prophet Haggai to challenge the Israelites to focus on rebuilding the temple, rather than on re-establishing their home and family life: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.”’ Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’” (Haggai 1.2-4).
OUR own experience of exile, through the coronavirus pandemic, began with a massive sense of dislocation. Yet, this side of Easter, we can recognise that there have been some significant positives to weigh alongside the loss. The challenge for us now is to think about how we might hold on to those positives, as we begin to plan for our return from exile. The world around us has changed in many ways for good (perhaps in both senses of the word), and, if we simply try to resume doing things in the old way, we may find that the world has moved on, and that we have failed to learn from the painful experience of recent weeks.
The Israelites would have returned to the Promised Land with high hopes. They soon discovered, however, that rebuilding their lives and the life of the nation was a hard slog, which led to a spirit of resignation and apathy that continued into the time of Malachi.
I suspect that many in our communities will emerge from this pandemic battered, bruised, and financially weakened, and, as happens so often, looking for someone to blame. It may be that we can only inspire people to look forward to “What now?” when we have given them the chance to lament properly the trauma and loss that they have experienced, and to grieve for the loss of loved ones. The restrictions on attendance at funerals will leave issues of grief unexpressed or unresolved, and they may take months to work through. Scripture provides a rich language of lament and grief; allowing space for such feelings to be expressed will be important before many are ready to move forward and rebuild.
There is also remarkable opportunity in this current crisis, however. In the midst of the fear and trauma, there is a resurrection of community spirit and a rejection of selfishness as socially unacceptable. Witness the Thursday evening claps for the NHS and the amazing response to 99-year old veteran Captain Tom More’s fundraiser.
As Pete Grieg, the founder of the 24-7 prayer movement, has commented: “Our friends and neighbours are asking questions because everything is shaking, and suddenly the claims of the Gospel are making more sense than ever before.”
Many in lockdown have time on their hands and are beginning to search online for deeper answers to the questions of existence and purpose. This is seen in the large numbers accessing online worship who are not regular worshippers, and in the significant numbers of new faces asking to join in where churches are managing to do small groups or enquirers’ courses online.
Return from exile involves both hard work and new opportunity. The prophet Haggai challenged the Israelites, as they returned from exile, to some hard thinking, changed priorities, and energetic rebuilding. He also promised them, however, God’s active presence among them, so that they need not be afraid: “‘But now be strong O Zerubbabel. . . Be strong all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you . . . and my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2.4-5).
Interestingly, the rebuilt temple seems to have been much more modestly built than the one before the exile — “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now. . .?” (Haggai 2.3) — and yet God promises his people that his glory will be seen more powerfully in the modest structures of the future than the grand edifices of the past. And he offered them the chance to have a part in realising God’s greater purpose: “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘And in this place I will grant peace.’” (2.9).
Financial resources for the Church’s mission may be tight, as the economy contracts and churches recover from the loss of cash income during the lockdown. In God’s economy, however, the Church is strong when it seems weak. The Early Church won the battle of ideas against the might of Rome not because it had power or wealth, but because it showed love to the poor. In recent days, some of those newspapers that have been most hostile to the Church and organised religion have begun to take a very different tone, as they have seen how local churches have cared for the poor and the sick and the dying in this time of pandemic.
AS WE prepare for life after lockdown, I believe that God is challenging the Church to learn from its experience and change for good. Here are a few of the things that I am learning:
Zoom works! Much useful work can be done without travelling to meet. Moving the many boards and committees of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council online permanently could save a massive amount of time and expense in unnecessary travel to London. It would also enable those in the north and south-west of England to be more fully involved in decision-making, and show that we mean business about reducing the national Church’s carbon footprint. Many diocesan and deanery meetings could similarly be moved online.
Almost anyone can live-stream. Clergy, like me, who regarded themselves as digitally challenged have discovered how easy it is to share daily prayers or Sunday worship with people at home. When we do, we connect with new people who have not previously been churchgoers, but are keen to pray or explore the faith in their own home. We also connect with housebound members who can no longer get to church, but feel more involved when they can worship online with the rest of the congregation on a Sunday or midweek, rather than having to rely solely on the home communion visit. For those who do not have access to the internet, the Church of England this week launched a free dial-in phone line, which gives them access to worship, prayer, and reflections.
Relationships matter more than meetings. Having far fewer meetings has enabled clergy and senior staff to spend time on the phone with individuals, seeing how they are, which is hugely appreciated. In the past decade, there has been a significant shift in evangelism from relying on courses to one-to-one discipling relationships, which is much more the pattern that we see with Jesus. Too often, when I was a vicar, people knew that, if I rang up, although I would begin by asking how they were, actually I was ringing to ask them to do something. During the lockdown, I have gotten to know many people much better, and have been able to pray for and support them, simply through regular pastoral phone calls.
Same old, same old won’t do. When people have been fasting from the eucharist for months, our first Sunday back together needs to be something much richer and more nourishing than handing out the same old service sheets, which we probably won’t be allowed to use anyway. People have become used to words on a screen, and a whole new fringe has been attracted to online services that are mostly crisper, more visually creative, and less wordy than the average church service before the lockdown. Now is the time to rethink patterns of services that became out of date years ago.
We can all live more simply. In lockdown, we have learned to embrace simpler pleasures — walks from the house, time in the garden or allotment, cooking at home, evenings with the family — all of which both save money and save the planet. If we can continue to consume less and travel less, we will save money, live more gently and sustainably in creation, and release funds, so that we can give more generously to God’s work and to those most hit by the current crisis.
WHEN the exiles returned in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, they had got idolatry out of their system and turned back to the true God. In recent weeks, society’s idols of consumerism and individualism have been shaken and found wanting.
My prayer is that we may return from this time of lockdown having rediscovered those essential values of community, caring for those in need, and living more sustainably and responsibly on this earth — and so be more ready to stand before the One who will come one day to judge the living and the dead.
The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn.