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Angela Tilby: Covid exiles need armour of light

04 December 2020


A nun walks to Karematsu Shrine to attend an ecumenical service in Nagasaki, southern Japan, in November 2019

A nun walks to Karematsu Shrine to attend an ecumenical service in Nagasaki, southern Japan, in November 2019

IN MY BBC days, I made a film about the Christians of Nagasaki, whose city was devastated in 1945. The Americans’ primary target had been the city of Kokura, but, on 9 August, there was too much cloud cover in that area; so the atom bomb was dropped, instead, on one of the largest Christian communities in the Orient.

In my research, I came across a piece of grainy black-and-white footage filmed at Christmas after the bombing. A small congregation of survivors knelt in the cathedral ruins before a makeshift altar, their thin voices united in a Japanese version of “Silent night”. Nothing could have stopped them celebrating midnight mass, even an atomic bomb.

I have had that image in mind as we begin Advent. It’s not surprising that many of us feel depleted at the start of this new church year. We are still in Covid exile; salvation seems a long way off. The initial shock of it all has given way to exhaustion. There have just been too many challenges, too many impossible decisions. Nobody would have thought, a year ago, that we would be using technology to keep church going. Or that a British Prime Minister would have the power to turn the sacraments on and off. And now we have Christmas and carol services to worry about. How much sanitiser does it take to wipe down a Christmas tree?

Before the second lockdown, the Bishops got their act together with other faith leaders, pleading that public worship should be allowed to continue, making the perfectly valid point that no outbreaks so far had been reported as a result of a modest resumption of public worship (News, 6 November). This time, there was even some theology, since it had occurred to some of them that sacraments were not the optional extra that they had apparently been at Easter.

In all this turbulence, ministers have had to try to maintain their own emotional equilibrium and to care for their families. The cost has been high. It hasn’t helped that clergy are caught between the traditional sense that they hold personal responsibility for the well-being of their communities and the more recent expectation that they will be told what to do and supported in it.

Not surprisingly, the delicate bonds between senior and parish clergy have sometimes come under strain. It has been particularly hard for those ministers who are vulnerable themselves, who have not always found practical help or understanding, either from their congregations or from colleagues. The Archbishop of Canterbury will not be the only one needing a sabbatical next year (News, 27 November).

Yet I think about the faith of those Nagasaki Christians, worshipping Jesus in the ruins. Against the grain of our own anxiety, we need to recover the virtue of fortitude — the armour of light.

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