Ever shall be?
THIS stage isn’t as straightforward as it looks. The liturgical season is walking us through the Acts of the Apostles and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, with all the heady mixture of wonder, anxiety, confusion, and boldness which characterises the disciples’ actions and reactions in those early days. I recognise some of this, as layers of restrictions are lifted, stage by stage. Despite more than a year of lively church life online, and as we emerge from what may have been our last lockdown, it is time for reassessment: what to keep from the past, and how to start again.
On a panel as part of a Liberal Judaism conference, I find myself agreeing with Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish colleagues as we discuss the fundamental changes and opportunities that going online has brought to our communities. I was very moved by the Sikh representative, who spoke about the profound loss in being unable to touch the scriptures, or to serve food.
Such enormous good will between faiths, as we listened to each other’s experiences, gives me courage, and hope, and a real sense of solidarity in caring for people and saying our prayers as society opens up again.
FOR many, of course, online life hasn’t featured at all. I sit with a man who, for many years, has slept on London’s streets. We are eating together at the newly formed, socially distanced, evening meal served in the sanctuary of the church during the week.
I have come to think of this supper, shared where the altar is sited for the eucharist, as something like “Sunday on Monday”: eating and drinking in the same place, in a different way. Christ is the host explicitly on a Sunday, less explicitly on a Monday, but irreducibly there all the same.
My conversation partner regales me with stories from the past few years of living outside, but, perhaps prompted by our surroundings, says he’s going to leave me with a question to think about, given my profession. He thinks that there is a conundrum in Christianity which he puts like this: Jesus suffered terribly on the cross, but it was for a short time, and he is now worshipped for eternity. Judas, equally necessary for the salvation of the world, obtained a small amount of money which he didn’t have time to spend, and is now damned for all eternity. In the service of salvation, which one has made the greater sacrifice? Another time, he’d like to hear what I think — but, for now, he’s off.
As the case for the rehabilitation of Judas — something that many theologians and preachers have set their minds to — nothing better has ever been put to me; and I reflect on how much I learn from conversations such as this. The demands of the complex technological and pastoral challenges that lie before us as a community of faith — with a public and historic place of worship in a parish that is still eerily quiet — feel at times overwhelming. But, sometimes, the task is simple: to eat and drink together as human beings in a sacred space, and to have a conversation.
Like all those powerful conversations in St John’s Gospel involving the Samaritan woman, or Nicodemus, or Martha, or the parents of the man who had been born blind, conversation can in itself be an agent for change.
Winds of change
THIS is what we hope will happen from reading, as a congregation, Ben Lindsay’s book We Need to Talk about Race (SPCK) (Features, 12 July 2019; Books, 23 August 2019) at Pentecost. As a white-majority church community, and part of a national Church that has identified itself as institutionally racist, we see clearly that change is necessary.
Our practices, assumptions, and church culture must be interrogated to see how inclusive we really are; and the only place for a white church leader to start is with repentance, because diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a decision that has to be taken together, over and over again.
At the first Pentecost, the crowd heard the good news of liberation in the Spirit in different languages, like fire and a mighty wind. The scriptural trajectory is from the unjust separation of Babel to the Spirit-filled equality of Pentecost.
I can speak only for myself, but I pray for the Spirit to dismantle the prejudice that I carry, and show me — show us — the more just path ahead.
Places of encounter
I TAKE some time, one afternoon, to sit in the empty church building with our architect and think with others more deeply about a possible clean-up and restoration in time for the 300th anniversary, in 2023, of the death of Christopher Wren.
The sunlight streaming in through the clear glass windows expresses the late 17th-century desire that the light of Reason should shine on the practice of religion, but also somehow embodies the sense that, bathed in that light, prayers have been said for centuries before us, and will be said by many others, long after we are gone.
And I’m reminded again, as cafés and pubs, galleries, and — eventually — theatres open up again, that church buildings matter. This is not as historic monuments, or museums to a faith that few are interested in any more, but as often beautiful public sacred spaces where honest conversation, whispered prayers, and public ritual place each of us as a small part of a much bigger story.
As we recover together as a society and as a global community, we will need these spaces more than ever.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.