They also serve
THERE is a plastic tent in the church courtyard. It is bright blue, and has diagrams on it showing me how to wash the backs of my fingers. When this all started, I didn’t know that a blue tent was going to be part of the deal.
We’ve roped off pews, installed hand-sanitising stations, restricted access, printed signs for the marble floor, and — in opening the church building for the first time since March — are trying to find the balance between providing a sanctuary for stillness and prayer while acknowledging that the place inevitably looks a little like a disinfected building site. Or a crime scene. Perhaps it’s both.
A crime scene because, as the Psalmist knows, God is convictable, even as we pray “Thy will be done,” or say the familiar funeral words on Zoom, “God alone is just.” The suffering of many people — not only those who have been fighting for breath, but those who now fight to feed their families — is incalculable, and unknowable by anyone who isn’t God. And, despite our beginning to emerge from the severest restrictions, there are reminders everywhere that we haven’t just been working from home, or having some kind of staycation, but have been trying to survive.
These reminders — such as the “Please Wait Here” signs, two metres from the votive-candle stand — are, in small ways, retraumatising sights in themselves. Where has God been, I might ask, as I stand on the outline vinyl feet on the floor? I seem to have been “waiting here” for some time.
Pointing the finger
OF COURSE, God has been — is — with us, at the bedside; at the graveside; in the quiet despair of an unsafe locked-down home, or the hot-faced shame of a first foodbank visit. With us, too, in the feeling-slightly-guilty-that-I’m-rather-enjoying-the-break, and repeated attempts to find the numinous in only two (Zooming) dimensions.
The instinct to put God in the dock is a human one, recognisable to all who have a heart. And the instinct to blame — either God or someone else — is also acute, and a characteristic of trauma. Many private prayers will be said in our newly reopened church; for some of those offering them, and in some of those prayers the dock will be quite crowded.
Work in progress
A BUILDING site because, whatever happens now, there will inevitably be adaptation, extension, and rebuilding of the community of people called church, who have, in many cases, flourished and grown online, but who will reassemble reconfigured in ways that are not yet clear.
The rectory that I live in has a Latin inscription above the front door: “After the fire of war, this house was built. Unless the Lord builds the house. . .”
Yes, the foundations are the same: we are Christ’s Church, and, as such, our cornerstone is the same as it always was. Much has been said about the “new normal” as being not just a return to the old normal. Certainly, previously held assumptions are under pressure, and some seem shattered altogether. But what this pandemic means for our society and Church can emerge only over time, because, yes, the Lord will build the house.
JUST as schools say that “blended learning” is here to stay, I’m looking forward to seeing what “blended church” might develop into, as we find ways to fix webcams in the church building and make the most of the amazing possibilities of the internet.
I will not soon forget single-handedly dragging a 100-metre ethernet cable through a darkened courtyard at 5 a.m. on Easter Day, to live-stream the dawn eucharist from the church garden. Or my emotion at seeing one of our older congregation members reading the Gospel online, knowing how much effort she had made, and how many attempts had been deleted, before she not only videoed herself but WhatsApped it, too.
Huge efforts have been made by large numbers of people who have been determined to remain connected in these most disconnected of times, and our post-Covid connections will change as a result.
Seeds of promise
AT THE end of the service on the Sunday before lockdown — our last Sunday physically together — the congregation sowed wheat in a large container in the courtyard. Despite one or two hiccups along the way (heavy rain; the inadequate wheat-farming skills of the Rector), the seeds have grown into wheat that was originally going to be harvested and milled for our eucharist in October.
What the eucharist will look like by then is not yet clear, but the wheat has become more than a metaphor as the green blades really have risen from the buried grain, day after day, even in the middle of a locked-down city.
So, these days, I look out from the rectory that emerged from the fire of the Second World War on to a courtyard that is newly reopened to passers-by, and try to absorb the words of the poet who has been narrating our wheat-growing project in these still-so-uncertain days: “So much seems possible when I watch these wheat-ears carve out their shapes in the air” (“2020”, Diane Pacitti, sjp.org.uk/daily-bread).
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.