“WEIRD, isn’t it?” was my opening gambit for many of the 200-plus phone calls I made at the beginning of the pandemic. It was, I felt, one of the most authentically priestly things that I’ve ever done: touching base with everyone in my scattered church communities.
Like many, I was setting up telephone groups among the congregations, dividing them up into teams with a lead telephoner so that no one, though isolated, would feel alone. Out of all those calls, only two people didn’t want contact; all the others enthusiastically joined in, and the groups have thrived.
In addition, our weekly pew and readings sheets, now transformed into information and internet prayer-resource lists, are being emailed or posted to all, as required. As Gillian, my PCC secretary and information-disseminating guru, pointed out, we’d spent ages talking in the PCC about how to improve pastoral care for the congregations, and — pretty much by accident — we’ve now achieved it.
When we finally get back into church, one of the first things we will do is invite members of the groups to stand up and wave at each other; for, although now good friends, some have never actually met.
AFTER a steep IT learning curve, many of my fellow clergy (including many of my former curates and other colleagues) have enthusiastically embraced the idea of streaming, and live services and daily Offices are now legion.
We took a slightly different route: seeing how things were going, before the shutters came down, we recorded four services in church — for Mothering Sunday to Easter Day, with organ, reading, homily, and hymn — uploading them weekly to YouTube and Facebook.
For the first of these (I think it still had novelty value), we had more than 3000 viewings — roughly 20 times the number of people we would normally engage with on a Sunday. Then, encouraged by our Facebook guru, for Holy Week, I recorded a series of short meditations, sitting on my sofa with my iPhone propped precariously on a dining chair.
My black Labrador, Sophie, dressed in liturgically appropriate bandanas, joined in patiently, yawning sporadically and looking bored. She stole the show. Generally, there were between 1000 and 2000 viewings for each.
Subsequently, we have collated and edited services comprising individuals recording (by phone) songs, prayers, and readings in their own homes, so that Sunday worship is no longer just me spouting, but a real reflection of our church communities. As the splendid Church Times cartoon that has been doing the rounds puts it, the church building may be closed, but the Church is very much open for business.
ALL this busy-ness, though, has come with a personal sense of passivity and almost inertia.
We have in the parish a hugely enthusiastic and effective band of volunteers — the “Uckfield Coronavirus Volunteers” — supplying hundreds of boxes of essential groceries to the isolated. Based in our church centre, some of the Holy Cross congregation (including our parish administrator and church treasurer) are industriously supporting the isolated in the wider community — of whom I am one. Normally, I would have expected to be one of the doers, but, as a diabetic, I am — apart from exercise and food shopping — self-isolating.
After more than 30 years of asking people how they are and if there’s anything they need, I’m gradually getting used to being on the receiving end of the same questions. Another learning curve, salutary and necessary.
Cloud of witnesses
PRAYER and worship have become far more internalised: from being at the sharp end of public — and often very bouncy — services, in which I have to be a combination of theologian, performer, and children’s entertainer, now (podcasts apart) services are just me and the dog, and God.
Although I was praying simultaneously with others (who had received the order of service by email), Good Friday, especially, was a strange and solitary experience. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve led a semi-staged dramatisation of the Passion, sometimes through the streets of the community, ending in church with the enactment of the crucifixion on a scaffolding stage with dry ice (effective, yes; subtle, no).
This year, it was just the two of us, sitting on a bench in the garden listening to birdsong, while I went through the readings and prayers, and remembered all those who had participated in the enactment over the decades. Tellingly, four of those who played Jesus and two who played the maidservant are now ordained or in training for the priesthood. I touched base with them all in my mind as I looked back and remembered, patting Sophie in the sunshine.
Plus ça change
UNPRECEDENTED all this may be in our own experience, but the resonances with past lives are only too evident. One of my churches — a beautiful, 14th-century building dedicated in memory of St Margaret of Antioch — stands next to an ancient moat, surrounded by fields and water meadows. In its side chapel is the improbably spectacular table tomb of Sir John Shurley (d.1631).
Beneath a tall, coffered arch, he and his two wives lie on slabs: he in the middle, one wife below, and one above. At the foot is a row of kneeling alabaster children: seven girls and two little boys. The boys and two of the girls hold skulls, showing that they died in childhood; five out of nine survived. Better than 50 per cent, but a sobering record of deaths through infant mortality and contemporary plague.
Although neither of the wives is named, the names of their fathers are proudly recorded to establish their pedigree. The second wife’s epitaph always resonates with me: “Her Devotions were her Dailey offerings to God, her Mercy sure against Condemnation, and all her Minutes were but steps to Heaven.”
As I take pleasure in little things, amid the weirdness of it all — in all the busy-ness and passivity, in the telephoning and podcasting, in sitting in a garden listening to birdsong, and remembering and giving thanks for the many people who have touched my life — maybe these minutes can be my steps to heaven, too.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.