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Friendships beyond boundaries

by
26 June 2020

Relationships: As we realise how much we need each other, what could change after lockdown, asks Kate Wharton

elisa cunningham

AS I write this, it is 93 days since I last touched another human being: more than 12 weeks without any human contact — and no idea how many more days will pass before it will once again be possible. The effects of Covid-19 have been enormous and wide-ranging. Every single part of our lives has been affected. And, whatever our personal circumstances and living arrangements, our relationships have been affected, too.

Time felt like it stood still on that day in March when the lockdown was announced. Wherever you were living at the time, you had to stay there. Who you were with — or without — things were “set” at that moment. Your household was your household. Your relationships were your relationships. The normal ways in which we might meet new people, or get to know people better, were suddenly taken away.

 

I SPEND quite a lot of my time writing, thinking, and speaking about singleness (Features, 16 March 2018). Whenever I do, I talk about community, and how the Church needs to get better at real community. So many people are lonely, so many are struggling. I would love to think that church could be the place to which people would turn first in their time of need — where they could always be sure of being made welcome, offered practical support, and able to make real friends; where someone would ask “How are you?” and really listen — and really care — about the answer.

All this was true before we had ever heard of Covid-19. How much more so now. A new language has evolved to describe how we are currently able to relate to one another: self-isolation, social distancing. We are certainly more physically isolated from the people around us than ever before. But we need to be more socially connected than ever before.

There has been more care, generosity, and empathy in evidence during this time, as well as more impatience, irritation, and judgement. We are all struggling — a bit anxious, fraught, stressed. People may have been quicker to jump to conclusions about others’ motives, and to weigh in with opinions; but, at the same time, there has been so much kindness around, too. I’d love that to be something that we carry with us, post-Covid.

I hope that we might all give each other the benefit of the doubt a bit more, and be a bit slower to judge, and quicker to empathise. Everyone has gone through tough times over the past few months, for different reasons. It is easy to think that we understand what life is like for someone else (the “I know exactly how you feel” phenomenon). Can we be slower to speak and quicker to listen — put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?

 

IN AN ideal world, church provides us with a great opportunity to make all kinds of different relationships — if only we make the most of it. Often, my non-churchgoing friends have been amazed to discover that, as a woman in my early forties, I have good friends who are in their twenties, fifties, and seventies.

It would be great if more close friendships could develop between people whose lives look quite different: if younger and older, male and female, single and married, people of different cultures and backgrounds, and those with children and without could learn what genuine friendship looks like with people who are not the same. Likewise, if all our friends currently are those who share our faith, or who express their faith in a similar way, can we befriend some people whose faith or spirituality looks completely different from ours?

Loneliness is one of the biggest issues facing our society today. We might perhaps imagine that it is mostly an issue for elderly people, and, of course, they are affected; but studies regularly show that many young people struggle, too. I love the stories (pre-lockdown, of course) of residential homes for the elderly which have nurseries within them, and of care homes where students also live (Comment, 25 May 2018). Encouraging cross-generational friendships is great for everyone concerned, and a healthy thing for our society.

At my church, we have set up a phone support-network in which everybody who is elderly or vulnerable is phoned, weekly, by someone from the congregation. Our children made Easter cards and posted them to our older people. Some of them wrote back, and regular correspondence has developed. Often, they didn’t know each other before, because they attended different services, but now they can’t wait to meet. When I have phoned an elderly person who lives alone, to see if there is anything they need, they have often told me that their neighbours are checking on them, doing their shopping, and helping them out.

Church communities must be part of the answer if we are really to see loneliness eradicated. It is too easy to come and go each week and never really connect with the people around, or not to see someone for a week or two and barely notice. They disappear altogether, and we never get in touch. There is a responsibility on us all to make more effort to get to know the people around us in church, beyond the platitudes “How are you?” “Fine, thank you,” which we often settle for.

 

I BELIEVE that we often fail to recognise what an extraordinary gift friendship is, and how deep and beautiful true friendships can be. We can end up almost being too busy for friends. But to know another person, and to be known by them, outside of the context of romantic love, is a joy and a privilege. Godly friendships encourage and challenge and comfort and stretch us in our walk with God. My close friends have kept me going during this time: they are the people I call first when I’m down or struggling, or when I have something to celebrate.

Inevitably, we are more likely to be friends with people who are like us, and whose situations are more like our own. Families are more likely to befriend other families, because the children can play together, and the parents have things in common to talk about. Single people are more likely to be friends with other single people. We all miss out, however, if we are friends only with people whose lives are like ours. Most of my close friendships are with couples and families. It takes a bit more effort to initiate and maintain friendships which cross circumstances, but everyone benefits when we do so.

 

NONE of us knows what church will look like in the future. Many are longing for a return to “normal”, but we have no idea when, or if, that will be possible. Our church has a reasonably large congregation; so it is likely that we won’t be able to worship together in the same place again for quite some time.

Might we see more smaller churches emerge, in homes rather than church buildings? Might we see more “family”-type gatherings develop, in which people of all ages — single, married, with and without children — form extended households in which they eat and worship together?

We are considering possibilities for the medium term, such as small groups of ten to 20 gathering in different homes to watch our online services and then to eat together. That looks more like the New Testament model of church than what most of us are used to. 

 

Priorities:

  • To see loneliness eradicated as we become better at real community.

  • To see more “mixed” friendships, across backgrounds and ages and circumstances.

  • Kindness and empathy to blossom as we emerge from lockdown.

 

Canon Kate Wharton is the Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Roby, in Liverpool diocese, and Assistant National Leader of New Wine. She regularly speaks, writes, and blogs about singleness and other topics.

Read the articles in our special post-pandemic issue here.

 

 

Recommended reading:

Single Minded by Kate Wharton (Monarch, 2013).

Seven Reasons Your Church Needs More Men edited by Annabel Clarke and Nathan Blackaby (Engage MCMP, 2018).

Healthy Faith edited by Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley (IVP, 2020).

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