HUMAN BEINGS find uncertainty very difficult. To bear it, we need two things in particular to be in place: clear guidance, and the support of other people, albeit through virtual communications.
This crisis is particularly tough for those with underlying mental-health conditions. It is also a huge challenge both to churchgoers and clergy. As an Anglican priest and a group analyst, I wish both to acknowledge the gravity of this situation and to suggest possible ways of surviving it.
A key problem is the unknown nature of the coronavirus. As one statistically informed colleague put it: “We all need to self-isolate. It is weird that everything has to stop. There is no precedent at all, because, in most human emergencies, people get stuck together rather than apart. Even during the Blitz, people went down to the air-raid shelters together and came up again together.”
This comment indicates that not only is the situation unknown, but the need for self-isolation removes the usual group support that has helped us in the past, even in wartime. Regarding clear guidance, however uncomfortable the instructions are, the regular briefings by the Government are trying to address this need as the situation unfolds.
TO SURVIVE this indefinite period of response to an unknown virus, we will need resilience. Diane Coutu has written that resilience “is one of the great puzzles of human nature, like creativity or the religious instinct”. She identifies three relevant aspects of resilience: “facing down reality”, “the search for meaning”, and “ritualised ingenuity”.
Resilient people have a down-to-earth view of the need for survival and recognise the danger of using denial as a coping mechanism. Facing up to the need for self-isolation and social distancing is essential if we are to prevent the voracious spread of the virus.
When it comes to the search for meaning, religious groups are ahead of the game. The most successful organisations are those that have strong value systems.
Key to fostering resilience is the ability to avoid taking stance the stance of a victim. Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a key witness to this. During the Holocaust, he created imaginary goals for himself so that he could rise above the sufferings of the moment.
The third aspect, “ritualised ingenuity”, is the ability to improvise a solution to a problem in an inventive way. Resilient people and companies, Coutu writes, “face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air”.
If you prefer a more theological approach to resilience, Justine Allain-Chapman, in Resilient Pastors (SPCK, 2012), offers an appropriately Lenten exploration of the desert as metaphor. By embracing the desert — and this is certainly a metaphorical desert of exclusion from everyday life, including worship — we can encounter God and ourselves, which can lead to altruistic living and pastoral responsibility. At the moment, the latter is being redefined to allow for the unusual circumstances, and many ministry teams are setting up phone hubs, besides streaming services.
The desert involves struggle, which can enhance spiritual growth, but it is a fine balance for the most robust of natures. For those with mental-health conditions, the situation can tip them from management of their symptoms to overload and crisis. One friend who has a long-term mental-health struggle has written: “My main anxieties concern the ability of the under-staffed and under-resourced NHS to treat all those requiring its services. My more personal anxieties are allayed by the community resources available — local groups, the city council, and individuals have been quick to respond and get organised.”
FOR clergy, concerns include the constantly changing situation, and how to minister in a crisis with no gatherings. In such circumstances, it is important that clergy identify pastimes that resource rather than drain them, and see these as necessary self-care. Such pastimes should be in the diary and be part of their regular spiritual disciplines. It is helpful for clergy not to be “on duty” when doing them.
It is important that clergy review regularly the balance of ministry and self-care. Going the extra mile cannot be sustained routinely, or else it is a shortcut to burnout, which serves no one. Work in teams, albeit virtual ones. None of us is indispensable.
As a group analyst, I was initially dismayed by the apparent attack on groups involved in our response to this virus. I have been struck, however, by the increased use and dependence on virtual groups, whether in social media or on television screens, and the evidence of “ritualised ingenuity” in many new initiatives.
Virtual choirs and exercise groups have the potential to ease the discomfort of self-isolation and social distancing. One retired clergy couple have written to me: “We are well used to reading, thinking, writing, conversing, and praying at home, but we know that we will need to dig deep to keep ourselves healthy mentally. We expect that there will be a great flourishing of new methods of remote communication, and will participate in them and contribute to them if we can.” Amen to that.
The Revd Dr Anne C. Holmes, a former mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist, practical theologian, and an NSM in the diocese of Oxford.