I HAVE finally gone over to the Dark Side: I have invested in Zoom Professional. Like many, I’ve done loads of “Zooming” over this past year, but had not actually been host before. So, I had a go.
I launched it on Ash Wednesday. I had duly baked my palm crosses in a roasting tin in the oven (not having had a Palm Sunday procession in 2020, I had to raid my secret stash of palms amassed — I’m never quite sure how — over many years), and then, satisfyingly, set a match to them in the garden for a good blaze. As they cooled, the house smelled agreeably of burned toast, a seasonal smell that always catches me off guard; it takes me back to all the times I’ve prepared for Lent over the past 30 years, in different places, in different times.
But, then, instead of decanting the ashes into liturgical ramekins for services in church, I carefully spooned them into 20 little brown envelopes, which I proceeded to deliver, together with small posies of daffodils and foliage from the rectory garden, to those wanting to participate online.
Then, the day itself. Mercifully, the link I’d sent out worked and, after the usual Zooming rituals — “Ethel, you’re sideways. . . Brian, can you turn your video on?. . . Sorry, Sophie, you’re still muted” — we settled into the ancient liturgy. Sitting at my desk, I solemnly intoned into my laptop microphone, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return,” and all the little figures on screen duly ashed themselves with the sign of the cross. Surreal, but hugely moving.
Audio visual aid
THEN I embarked on the stormy seas of Lent groups. In session one, I ambitiously tried to share a video on screen, but failed forlornly: although the visuals were there, the sound, alas, was not. I was at a bit of a loss what to do next, but a resourceful octogenarian had downloaded it from YouTube, and so saved the day by playing it over his computer speakers while the rest of us eavesdropped.
Later, after suitable Googled research, I realised that I had failed to tick a vital box, and — aided and abetted by the same tech-savvy octogenarian — succeeded in sharing a video with vocals; so the rest of the series (fingers crossed) should be fine. Though heaven help the confirmation course to come.
ONE benign, if again surreal, Zoom experience was a 100th-birthday party. The birthday girl was Aissa, a stalwart of our congregation for decades. She is French, and, despite more than 60 years in England, has retained her wonderful thick accent. She has quite a story to tell. As she explained to a former curate, “My husband fell out of the sky and into my arms” — which is pretty much the literal truth.
Aissa was a young girl living with her parents on the family farm in rural France. On 7 June 1944, there was a knock on the door: it was a young English airman, Eric, who had parachuted from a crashing Lancaster bomber. In desperation, he asked for help. They took him in, eventually smuggling him back to the advancing British forces at huge personal risk. On 7 June 1947, he and Aissa were married, three years, to the day, after he had “fallen into her arms”.
But other parts of her story were darker. When I first visited her, amid her collection of ornaments I saw a black-and-white photo of a handsome young man. I asked who he was. “That was my brother: he was in the Resistance — the Nazis killed him.” I learned later that Aissa, trying to protect her brother, had removed explosives from his flat, bundling them away in shopping bags. She could so easily have died, too.
Joining her 100th-birthday Zoom, with friends and with generations of her family, it was a privilege to become part of her long story. She has moved away now, after a couple of falls at home, and is living with her son. She was always in the same seat on Sundays, always immaculately coiffured, and elegantly dressed and bejewelled. I will miss her faithful and encouraging — and quietly heroic — presence.
Consolations of religion
ANOTHER Zooming phenomenon has been pastoral offices. Soberingly, we have had no baptisms over the past year, but weddings are starting to defrost, and I’ve done a number of cheery wedding interviews on screen.
Of a different order, though, are Zoom funeral encounters. Although better than just phone calls, they still seem strange and inadequate. So often, people have said to me: “Oh, Fr John, it’s so hard that I can’t hug anyone”; and that feels especially true when talking to the recently bereaved via a computer screen. When someone is weeping, gentle words and encouragement go only so far.
I have just finished a run of some ten funerals, with no clear water between them, about half of them Covid-related. Looking back, it got easier earlier this year when we were once again able to have funerals in church with 30 people. It was especially grim to begin with, in the early days of lockdown, when a maximum — although necessary — of only ten in attendance felt hugely sad.
Mind you, making a virtue out of necessity, I found that it could also be something more personal and intimate than usual. One funeral in particular comes to mind: that of an elderly man who had died from Covid, at which only his daughter and her husband were present in a big, new crematorium chapel, built for hundreds.
We sat and, although still in a liturgical framework, we just chatted about her dad. There were jokes and anecdotes, there were a few tears; we commended him to God, and left. It felt individual and authentic in a way that few funerals tend to be.
SO, WE have Liturgical Zoom, Discursive Zoom, Cheery Zoom, Pastoral Zoom, Octogenarian Zoom, and even Centenarian Zoom: all a steep learning curve in the past 12 months, and I’m still in awe of the resourcefulness and tech-savviness of the most unlikely people. I still miss meeting in the flesh, though, and being able to hug. Soon, I hope. Onwards. . .
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.