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Navigating the stages of the pandemic  

by
03 December 2021

Having risen to the challenges posed by Covid, parishes still face significant hurdles, says Paul Cowan

ONE of the hats that many bishops’ chaplains wear is the oversight of diocesan emergency planning. Most of the time, chaplains end their tenure thankful that emergency planning never had to be tested and actioned. Then came Covid-19. For nearly two years, I have been chairing the Emergency Planning Group for the diocese of Oxford, which has overseen the guidance, support, and communications to our 815 churches and 300 schools and academies across three counties.

There were periods during that time when the guidance needed to change almost weekly, and the fleetness of foot and adaptability of local churches and schools has been remarkable. Like the stages of grief, there are stages that we go through in a crisis. One of these might be summed up as the heroic stage of rising to the challenge.

Although infection rates remain quite high, and are particularly challenging for our schools, there is, at the same time, a sense in which we are moving into a different stage of the pandemic (although the ominous news of the Omicron variant might change this).

During the past few months, we have been moving away from an active crisis response and into a new post-heroic stage before “recovery”. While our individual and collective experiences as local communities differ, there is now a repeating narrative coming to our planning group of high levels of tiredness, stress, relational tensions, and sick leave; this is more pronounced for those in leadership posts, such as incumbents and head teachers.

 

IN SOME ways, this should not be a surprise at all. The psychological stages through a crisis to a place of recovery are well known and documented. The soldier comes home from the war zone, struggles, and painfully learns that, on several levels, there is no such thing as “return”, and that there is a great deal to processing to be done before coming to a place of recovery. The constant human hope and error is to expect or yearn for “return” rather than “recovery”, and to look for recovery far too quickly, leapfrogging or denying the personal and corporate cost of the crisis. It is not easy to dwell for a time in this Holy Saturday.

I am concerned that we are in danger of doing this at all levels of the Church. For some, this stage is brief and followed by renewed energy and purpose; but, for a significant number, this present stage between the heroic and recovery is proving tough, with feelings of disillusionment, anger, depression, and lower-than-usual energy. But, by understanding and articulating the fact that these feelings are a normal part of the human response and recovery from a crisis, we can give ourselves and each other grace and time for healing. Where this is not named, there is the danger of adding guilt and shame into the mix.

Leaders at all levels have a tricky road to navigate here, and they also need to give proper attention to their own well-being. Though there might be a desire and expectation among some to get on immediately with new initiatives, and go up a gear, there is, in fact, a hill to climb. We may need to drop a gear and accept some slower progress for now. What this means, in practice, is giving greater attention and time to the basic ingredients of well-being which we are all aware of but do not always attend to: rest, diet, exercise, sleep, and safe places to reflect and talk with openness and honesty.

 

THERE are at present some particular layers of challenge, pressure, and loss for many church communities and their incumbents. While it is important to note that this list is not the narrative for all of us, I expect that most of our church communities will find an echo in parts of this list:

  • disagreement and tensions to be navigated around the mitigation of infection risk: do we wear masks, shake hands, socially distance and share the common cup?
  • the additional workload of hybrid church, providing online provision as well as the usual in-person services;
  • lower numbers and hesitancy about returning to church, with the knock-on challenges of the struggle to find church officers and volunteers, and a reduction in parish income. I know from my own experience as a parish priest that it is hard to avoid the sense of validation and success being tied to congregation size;
  • loss of some clergy support, with fewer retired clergy available to help out; and
  • year-on-year increases in administration and governance requirements in the running of a church.

This present stage is not an easy one to dwell within, but it is surprisingly cathartic to name what is happening and understand the importance of paying attention now to our and others’ well-being. The good news, of course, is that we know that, although our Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays are unavoidable, they are never the end of the story: there is a final stage still to come, which is about recovery, renewal, re-envisaging, and, maybe, something reminiscent of a restorative meal of barbecued fish on a beach.

 
The Revd Paul Cowan is Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford.

“Emerging from Coronavirus: A tool to aid reflection” can be read at oxford.anglican.org/coronavirus-covid-19-2/emerging-from-coronavirus

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