Let me start with a statement of the obvious: I have never received any training on how to minister during a pandemic. There wasn’t a course on it, or even a lecture, when I was at theological college, and there wasn’t a module on it during my initial ministerial training. So there you go, just like every other ordained minister, church worker, and member of our congregations I am having to, broadly speaking, make it up as I go along. Of course we all hope that in doing this we are listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but in a very real sense we are all ‘seeing through a glass darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12). We are living and ministering in strange, confusing and awful times.
One of the very real challenges for the church, indeed all institutions as well as individuals, is, I think, is the absence of predictability. Most, perhaps all of us, live by rhythm (even those of us whose sense of rhythm is woeful!). In our daily, weekly and seasonal lives we have a sense of where we are and what is coming up; we are in fact liturgical beings.
We are, by contrast, thrown by the unpredictable and we don’t like it when circumstance means that all we can do, the very best that we can do, is look through the proverbial glass darkly. Predictability and clarity are props that allow us to cope well. In the absence of predictability and clarity we find ourselves walking a never ending Emmaus Road, confused, confuzzled, perplexed.
My greatest COVID woe is that I miss the pattern of predictable events that give shape, clarity and even meaning to my life and vocations.I missing seeing my daughters and my mother. I don’t enjoy having to look through a glass darkly in the hope that they are okay. I also miss my regular, routine, week-by-week pattern of activity. I really miss visiting the sick, the dying and the beavered. And, I miss going into church.
The absence of all that is predictable inevitably leads to a constant and relatively low level of anxiety and, the trouble with constant low level anxiety is that it can easily escalate. As someone who has in the past experienced the toxicity of acute anxiety and the numbness of depression I need to be vigilant.
My greatest COVID worry is, let’s put it bluntly, money. Are we going to be okay, are my parishioners going to be okay, is the church going to be okay? I strongly believe that the economic future is going to be bloody, far bloodier, that we are programmed to accept and believe. I also believe that the economic future is going to be highly volatile and unpredictable. We are all going to have to stare into the economic future ‘through a glass darkly.’ It could well be that the assumptions on which planning tools are so frequently based will prove to be about as much use as the proverbial chocolate fire guard.
From a church perspective my biggest worry is that we will be alarmingly slow to acknowledge this and will seek to cling on to our existing ways of financing and arranging ourselves until we are forced, backs against the wall, to accept that we can no longer do so. We will also hold on to our cherished plans and generic strategies for too long, for we will not dare to look into the darkness and admit that those strategies on which we had placed all our hopes (and bets) might be moribund. I worry that what we are hoping is that a couple of aspirin and a course of antibiotics will do the trick when what is actually required is some pretty radical surgery.
Could it be that in church houses up and down the land we need fewer pharmacists and more surgeons? My gut instinct is that this is probably the case but, like all of us, all I can do is look through a glass darkly. Just one more sobering thought: for surgery to be effective is normally needs to be deep and early and the temptation is frequently to delay (in economic terms behavioural finance provides some really interesting insights – insights that might allow us to see through the glass a little less darkly).
Are there any blessings that we as Anglicans might receive, rather than necessarily pronounce or give, in these strange and dangerous COVID times? Well, maybe on the blessings we might be receiving is a renewed understanding of what it means to be an established (and stable) church; a church which is embedded in community and which exists in large part to serve, tend to, and feed the community.
My own experience of ministry over the last few weeks has been a renewed understanding of what the community expects from its parish church and, put simply, what it expects is that we tend (listening to the requirements of those in need with compassion and commitment) and that that we feed those in need, both physically and spiritually. I wonder whether our communities have a far richer understanding of John 21, 15-17 than the church? I also wonder whether the civic community has a greater appreciation of the concept of mission-partnership and, the importance of an established and stable church than we church insiders would dare admit?
Maybe one of the blessings that the church might receive (rather than pronounce) is a renewed understanding of what it means to be a stable and effective parish church? Maybe for too long we have insisted on doing our own thing, in our own ways, thinking that we are a primarily a membership organisation (and our financial models in may ways are based on this assumption), set over, above and in many ways against society? Maybe out of this crisis a renewed focus on the cure of souls, all souls, will arise? Maybe we will (re) learn what it means to be authentically parochial? In the meantime all we can do is continue to look through a glass darkly.