SUCH is the pace of change in this rapidly evolving situation that it’s become normal for emails sent out, or decisions taken, about church activity and policy to be redundant only hours later. The current state of flux reminds me of a time-management course I went on as a relatively newly ordained curate.
The trainer got us to look at our (then, paper) diaries for the coming week. Cross out everything unnecessary, to give yourself some more time, she advised. We did that, and were left with a diary that looked more manageable, with important appointments still in place.
Now, she said, take a look at those appointments and make some tough decisions. Cross out anything that you don’t consider absolutely essential. This took longer. Feelings of obligation combined with worries about what the cancelled people would think of us, as well as some exhilaration as previously hard-wired obligations got shelved in the fantasy week that was shaping up.
Now we were left with a much sparer life, only the absolutely essential things remaining. We felt pleased — perhaps a little smug — that we’d been so decisive, so clear, so brave.
Now, the trainer said, take a look at all those essential things. Imagine them; remember why you left them there. Now, cross them out, too. All of them. Everything you thought was unmissable. Think of a creative way to work round their cancellation.
This third round of diary-filleting revealed to me something that I have never forgotten. Up to that point, the decisions that I was taking to let appointments go or events disappear could be taken by me alone. But this third set of cancellations meant that I was suddenly much more dependent on other people for help.
If I were really saying that I could no longer take the funeral booked for Thursday, then I needed to find someone else who could. If my colleague was really saying that he could no longer pick up his children from primary school on Wednesday, then he was reliant on others to do it for him.
The spread of Covid-19 has driven us to that third phase. We need each other if we are to survive. The news tells me that London is ahead of the rest of the country in the spread of the virus, and so — given print deadlines — I may be experiencing now, here in the centre of town, what the rest of you will be experiencing as you read this a week or two later. Deserted streets, closed cafés, empty parks, (much) cleaner air, edgy supermarkets, desperate rough-sleepers; and the real prospect of police-enforced lockdown except for key work.
HOLY WEEK is imminent, too, and the donkey has been cancelled; the palm crosses wait for another day. Hands are washed so often that they are sore, but, this year, no congregational feet will be washed by the priest. Church communities online will still be able to walk with Christ the way of the cross, and the connections will be, I know, surprisingly close and affecting.
At the time of writing, our first live-streamed eucharist has elicited a strong emotional reaction from our dispersed and quarantined congregation, many of whom simply burst into tears at the sight of “their” church building filled with the singing of a hymn that they could hear only themselves joining in with from their living room.
Not only the lonely
TWO of the greatest scourges of our time — loneliness, and excessive screen time — are thrown into even sharper relief in these days, and the prospect of a church “shut but not closed” for weeks is one that will require ingenuity to maintain and resilience to bear.
But I have been pondering, as we have gradually shut our market, stopped our concerts, sent our staff home, remained open for private prayer, and now shut altogether, what it is that the church will offer that only it can offer — alongside its shared vocation, with other agencies, to relieve loneliness and comfort the bereaved and ill.
Someone in our congregation said to me recently, “I’m religious, but not very spiritual”, inverting the mantra so popular in our times. And perhaps she is giving us a clue about what will hold us fast and mould us into a more closely Christ-shaped Church that is both religious and spiritual: a Church apt for these days.
It might go something like this: at its best, all the staple activities of organised religion — the recitation of scripture, the practice of ancient rituals, the repetition of eternal truths made new today, the building of community — provide, at the very least, a sort of spiritual scaffolding, within which an innumerable variety of views, assertions, experiences, and beliefs can be safely and gently held.
The stories and rituals of Holy Week are the most intense expression of this in the liturgical year. Religion at its best, within this spiritual scaffolding, helps us to face our deepest fears and culpabilities; and it does this supremely in Holy Week.
But, this year, our experience of isolation — either alone or in families — may manifest those fears in an acute way: in a fear of being alone; a fear that you are married to the wrong person; a fear that you struggle to love your children; or the realisation that you are afraid to die.
For some, isolation such as this can force us deep into those fearful places without any apparent safety net. Secrets will become harder to bear as time goes on. After the initial flurry of home gyms, balcony concerts, and Netflix binges, it may be that we will need to consider more deeply a new routine of living — one in which the spiritual scaffolding of Christianity can hold the conflicts, either of isolation or of enforced proximity to people we have forgotten how to love.
Gift of peace
IT IS true at any time, but perhaps more acutely true in Holy Week, that one safety net that Christianity can offer is the practice of not being afraid of silence; of not insisting on keeping busy all the time; of finding ways to introduce sabbath refreshment into our every day. We can help to cultivate a deeper trust, making a conscious decision not to fuel rumours and speculation that, we see, whip up the crowd — both then in Jerusalem, and in our towns and cities today.
Instead, by leaning on the profound and inexorable rhythm of the events of this week, we can be inspired and comforted by Jesus’s laser-like focus on the well-being of the person in front of him, and follow his path, constantly pointing away from himself to the glory of God, and God’s presence in the midst of suffering.
It will be a Holy Week like no other, but, at the end of it, the Exultet will surely be sung to call us to rejoicing, and — even behind our locked doors — Christ’s wounded hands will be open to us, offering us healing and peace.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.