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Lockdown could change the Church permanently

29 May 2020

Richard Giles, John Sadler, and Robert Warren call for a radical rethink of the work of a parish priest

HOW things will look for the Church when we emerge from this experience will depend on what we do now. Is mere survival our aim, or are we excited by the surprising things that we discover as we strive to be true to our vocation in dramatically changed circumstances?

Being prevented from “going to church” might liberate us from our habitual routines to “become church” all over again — or, perhaps, for the very first time.

Such rejuvenation may help to release us, at last, from the prison of our church building, which, for many, have become shrines to the past which not only soak up energy and resources, but also perpetuate concepts of division and hierarchy harmful to a mature understanding of who we are.

Although this awakening is to be grasped by all God’s people, it is at this point that the clergy, set apart and trained not simply to “take services”, but to pastor, train, and mobilise the community of faith, who must rise to the occasion. This will demand not just a complete rearrangement of the diary, but also a totally new set of priorities: nothing less than a reinvention of the part played by the priest.

TO MOVE away from the perception that the parish priest is there to take services and to serve as caretaker, the focus will need to shift to:

Formation. Freed from over-indulgence in churchiness, we can get down to some basic teaching about who we are and what our task is. Whereas getting busy people to give time to group study, training, or preparation has always been hard work, the present crisis changes everything.

This time of isolation and restricted movement clears a space in our lives to embrace new ways of communicating and learning which will potentially transform the Church for a very long time. We might not merely survive this crisis: we might come of age. We shift from going to church to living the faith.

For example: the sermon could be transformed into a dialogue with several participants rather than a monologue delivered “from on high”.

Prayer. This period of lockdown allows new disciplines of prayer and rediscovery of old ones to flourish. Although the concept of a virtual eucharist can be problematical (Comment, 8 May), the daily Office can come into its own.

At certain set times each day, agreed beforehand, a parish community could jointly participate in morning, evening, or night prayer by means of one of the many platforms available, such as Facetime, Whereby, or Zoom. These times could equally be suitable for extempore prayer, or silent prayer together. The pastor could provide a phrase from one of the set readings, with a brief comment, as “soul food” for the day. We shift from saying prayers to engaging with God.

For example: Encouraging the use of the examen (night prayer) in such a way that people practise it as they go to bed each night, deepening their sense of solidarity with others.

Pastoral care. Clergy visiting of people in their homes was in decline and, in its traditional form, is now not permitted. But here is a great opportunity for the Church to nurture mutual pastoral care, by means of virtual groups through which people check in regularly with each other, prayer triplets, or phone calls to those without an online connection. We shift from meeting needs to helping each other into wholeness. For example: prayer, support, and reflection triplets could be established online, co-ordinated with the parish priest.

Mission. The present crisis lays bare many needs in communities and presents the Church with an opportunity to develop its social action. Authority to take initiative in this field will need to be delegated to individuals who are equipped to discern and analyse problems, match resources to needs, and recruit help. We shift from capturing minds to enhancing lives. For example: a “card-drop” (a street or two at a time) to offer phone contacts, shopping, or help with practical matters, as a small practical step towards communicating something of God’s love.

THE examples listed above will not fit every setting, but are intended to provoke thoughts about alternative actions that would be appropriate in any particular setting.

In the aftermath of the execution of Jesus, his close followers, their hopes shattered, were to be found frightened and isolated in a lockdown of their own. The future was empty and fearful, and many of them would have wanted to go back to safer, more predictable times.

The challenge and opportunity of lockdown calls us beyond the church building and the familiar. It is a call into life-giving focus on the nurturing of formation, prayer, mutual pastoral care, and mission. It is these that will renew the life of the Church to be an engaging faith community.

The Revd Richard Giles, formerly Vicar of St Thomas’s, Huddersfield, and Dean of Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, is a liturgical consultant, and author of
Re-pitching the Tent (Canterbury Press, 2004). The Revd John Sadler has been ordained for 42 years, working predominantly in socially deprived communities. Canon Robert Warren was formerly Vicar of St Thomas’s, Crookes, Sheffield, and National Officer for Evangelism.

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