OVER the first spring lockdown, I unexpectedly became custodian of something that had been started on the final Sunday that we were physically together. “Daily Bread” was a wheat-growing project, and, through the glorious sunshine last March and April, one of my regular tasks was to look after the parish wheat seeds, growing in a huge box in the courtyard off Piccadilly.
Instructional videos were sent by our churchwarden (who, as a former farmer, knew what she was talking about), and I found myself watering, tending, and — rather alarmingly, at one stage — doing some actual basic farming: thinning out the wheat, which had become congested, and was flattened by heavy rain.
Thankfully, I didn’t destroy it, and in August it was harvested, threshed, and winnowed by the congregation, and bread was baked — sadly, not to share at the eucharist as originally planned; but the symbolism was still powerful. Congregation members grew their own wheat, too, in gardens and window-boxes.
IN THE middle of the current lockdown, another project is starting, although not physically until we can meet again. Taking our cue from the parable of the wheat and the tares, the same large box will be sown with “weeds”. But not just any weeds: seeds from 42 different plants that grew up in the ruins of St James’s, after it was bombed during the Second World War.
In the parable, the point is made that the tares can’t be removed without destroying the wheat; that both were to grow together until the harvest. The species of “weeds” that will be sown in the wheat box here caused comment in the 1940s, when they were discovered, to the extent that experts from Kew Gardens got involved. The plants are from all over the world — carried, perhaps, on the boots of travellers — and were unusual for their time and ours.
I guess we’re hoping, following the example of Jesus’s genius storytelling, that these plants that look like weeds will be for us what they were for a congregation exhausted by wartime: signs of resourcefulness, resilience, and growth in a situation that was perilous, chaotic, and full of grief.
OUTSIDE, the snow is falling, although not settling, and Lent snowdrops are out. I have become a little obsessed with a twig I found in the park, on top of a pile of ice that had been a snowman; the twig was resting alongside two stones, which had been used for eyes. I am carrying it around in my pocket, holding on to it, rather like a relic. It’s not just a twig to me: it’s a snowman’s smile. And, as such, it is proving somehow to be a sign of hope in these grey February days.
AS LENT begins, we are making a video for our congregation to create their own ash at home, since the church building is currently closed for in-person worship. At the time of writing, I’m planning to set light to a bowl full of palm crosses on the altar, live on YouTube, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. By the time this Diary is published, we will all know if I’ve burned the church down. Fire engines arrive automatically when the alarm goes off; so it could be gripping Sunday-morning viewing, even if the congregation are in their pyjamas.
Our younger congregation are having a hard time: most of them have worked throughout the pandemic, and are thoroughly fed up with sitting on their beds, looking at their colleagues via Microsoft Teams. I feel in solidarity with them, although I’m incredibly fortunate to be rattling around in a large rectory.
On the technology front, I’m a little giddy because my education is gathering pace. I recently learned how to show a film on Zoom, and even embedded an original video into a PowerPoint presentation. Whether it helped those watching to pray is a whole other thing, but I still feel that I have not learned this much, this fast, since I was 12.
WHEN I was priested, my hands were anointed; and I rather fancifully imagined that their anointing was to be for holding hands with the dying; the breaking of bread; the turning of the scriptural page. These days — although, of course, they do all those things, too — they are more likely to be harnessed as inbox-slayers, Zoom-breakout-groups-creators, going-live-on-YouTube-enablers.
Some years ago, I took the memorial service of Margaret Anstee, a pioneering diplomat who was the first woman ever to head a United Nations peace-keeping mission. Her memoir was called Never Learn to Type, which, she said, as a woman in a man’s world, was the best advice she’d ever been given: she could never be made to take the minutes. I’m beginning to know how she felt.
THE desert season is upon us. The roller-coaster of vaccines and variants makes the anchoring, centring penitence and prayer of Lent even more necessary this year. If this season is the sad springtime of the Church, then its combination of grief at what is lost and wonder at the persistent green shoots that break through the soil is especially poignant for our traumatised world. And so our repetition of the old words will have new urgency this year as I remember, on Ash Wednesday, come what may, that I am dust and to dust I shall return.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.