IN Liturgy on the Edge (Books, 1 June 2018), which Sam Wells edited three years ago, he and others at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields described the range and rationale of their liturgical life, in order to stimulate creativity (not emulation) in other churches, particularly through participation in their HeartEdge network. Finding Abundance in Scarcity offers a similar compendium in relation to his church’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. It is a book written against the background of extraordinary resources, but also of humbling losses, as its dedication to the 84 staff members made redundant makes evident.
Wells contributes one third of the material, much in the form of repurposed sermons, talks, and prayers, with his trademark fondness for creating patterns of ideas, and with ample evidence of his gift for setting experience in a theological perspective, grounded in an inclusive and affirmative gospel. “God gives the church everything it needs. But the church must be open to receiving that everything in the form God sends it: often those on the edge.”
Sally Hitchener looks at online worship, and offers the striking thought that in disembodied Zoom worship, seeing each other for once against our particular domestic backdrops, “Church is more intimate, more incarnate in each of our lives.”
Richard Carter writes about the value of contemplative prayer, and with Catherine Duce about lectio divina and several classic figures from the monastic tradition. Most of what they present is freestanding of pandemic issues, though sharpened by living in “in-between times”. Carter also writes movingly about the necessary mutation of the ministry of St Martin’s among the homeless during lockdown, and Duce describes support for the bereaved, particularly those for whom isolation reawakens latent grief for earlier losses.
The Director of Music provides a graphic account of how St Martin’s felt its way towards a new kind of musical life, which Wells picks up as a story of improvisation. One result has been an impressive range of musical resources made available online to other churches. Partnership is a notable theme of St Martin’s, and it would be interesting to have further discussion of how this might be understood as a two-way process.
Jonathan Evens reminds us that artists, “whose regular practice involves elements of withdrawal and isolation”, have a particular perspective on lockdown, just as Fiona MacMillan makes the point that “Many disabled people have long experience of being unable to access buildings and of building community online; of reluctantly finding new ways of doing things because the old ways are no longer possible.” Harry Ching speaks for expatriate church members, for whom travel restrictions mean that expats have become exiles.
The latest writing in this topical portrait is dated November 2020 — a prayer greeting the prospect of a successful vaccine; so this “humble account of how one congregation responded to the first eight months of pandemic” stops part-way through a story whose further trajectory was not known. This pre-vaccination perspective suggests why the book is strong on worship, spirituality, and pastoral care, but with limited reference to the issues of social justice which have opened up as time has gone on — healthcare inequalities; the global distribution of vaccines; the future of work; the nature of government; the limits of personal freedom.
It is understandable that this least parochial of churches does not say much about the rediscovery of the local which featured largely in many people’s early experience of lockdown; and the anxieties that now surround re-emergence are beyond this book’s horizon.
But the authors make no claim to clairvoyance, and this lively account of the response from St Martin’s over the first months of the pandemic provides plenty of pastoral and theological food for thought to take up as the story moves on.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
Finding Abundance in Scarcity: Steps towards church transformation
Samuel Wells, editor
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.99