Covid and Spiritual Awakening

I can’t think of any issue which has left me as uncertain in my mind as Covid. I sense a concern in the church that the disruption to our patterns of church life and worship may have led to an ebbing away of faith and practice.

Those of us who have spent our working lives nurturing and fostering congregations often have a feeling that faith is a fickle thing – that it is all too easy to ‘lose the habit of God’. We have all seen people quietly disappear from faith communities after holidays, after moving house, in unemployment, during family breakdown …. But we have also been privileged to spend time with people at crisis moments in their lives. We have seen in them and admired a faith which is anything but fickle – rather it is strong, resilient, generous, loving.

I suspect that what Covid has done has been to interrupt the constant relationships which are the foundation of pastoral care and congregational life. And it is hard to tell either how important that is or how lasting will be the effect of that change.

I’ve also been reflecting on the article by Leslie Francis and Andrew Village (Church Times 2 July 2021) in which they reflected on how the early months of the pandemic affected churchgoers’ faith. The Coronavirus, Church and You survey was designed to test the thesis that committed churchgoers would experience the initial days of the pandemic as a time of spiritual awakening.

What is interesting is that 57% of respondents reported an improved sense of spiritual awareness as against 7% who experienced a deterioration. In every other area – except one – the same pattern emerged. So people reported enhanced prayerfulness and feeling closer to God. But just 25% felt closer to the church compared with 37% who felt more distant.

The two main conclusions were that there was a positive spiritual awakening – and that part of what helped that to flourish was an active involvement and participation in online worship.

I suspect that one of the conundrums at the heart of all this is that online worship can be at one and the same time more personal and involving – and less. I’m going to think about that a bit more

Covid and the Congregation

I think that the time when it becomes clear – or at least clearer – what Covid has done to our congregations is coming nearer. I have one perspective on it from my place in the pew – another from clergy friends and some to whom I try to give support in conversation on line

it’s been tough for clergy. And hard to hold together a breadth of congregational life. There is rebuilding to be done. And maybe – just maybe – Covid will be seen to have made it possible for us to get rid of some things whose time was long past

I’ve always been interested in the ‘fuzzy boundaries’ which are characteristic of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. We don’t for the most part do clear-cut ‘in or out’ membership. Indeed sometimes we have difficulty defining what membership means. Fuzzy boundaries – a sort of permeable edge to the church – accept that people are on a journey. Some are moving closer and others further away. One of my clergy friends used to say that ‘our mission field is already present on the periphery of our churches. And I like that idea and the suggestion within it that God is already present and at work beyond the places which we can reach.

I suspect that Covid has made it difficult to exercise that kind of ministry. We’ve been reduced to limited numbers – masks – no music … it’s been really hard. If I was active in ministry now, I think I would be hoping that before too long I could be getting back to congregation building. And I think I would be trying to work out whether the online world is going to have a continuing part to play in helping us to reach out across those boundaries

Of which more another day …

Lift up your hearts!

We’ll certainly be in church tomorrow morning. I have to admit that I haven’t found church in lockdown easy – but music is back tomorrow and I think that will make all the difference

I remember a Sunday when I was conducting worship in the early days of lockdown – and half seriously I said to the congregation that we were going to need to develop very expressive eyes. As time went on, it was the music which I missed almost more than anything.

I suppose that is partly because of my own musical background. But even more because I think that music is an intrinsic part of worship. I’ve always felt that, if you open your lips to sing the praises of God, your heart can’t be far behind. For the same reason, music was for me a shaper of vocation – and one of the losses which really saddens me is the disappearance of children’s choirs. I still carry close to the top of my memory the Psalms which I learnt by heart at the age of eight or nine.

One more thing… which is the extent to which in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition it is the hymns which carry much of our theology. This one, which we shall start with tomorrow, may not the the most sublime but it tells the story of faith. And that’s what matters.

Father Con and Covid

One of the reasons why I began blogging again was because I sense that Covid is a moment of challenge for the church beyond anything else in our lifetimes. Perhaps, because of the scale of that challenge, I have written about many things – but very little about Covid.

But listen to this ….

On Tuesday this week a bus went out of control in the village of Monkstown beside the River Lee just outside Cork city. It caught my attention because my father’s family came from Cork and my grandparents retired to Passage West – the next village up the river. So I know it well

The driver of the bus died and so did a pedestrian on the pavement. The pedestrian turned out to be Father Con Cronin – aged 72 – the local parish priest who apparently pushed his secretary out of the way of the bus and sacrificed himself

On Wednesday, Alexa give me RTE Irish Radio news and I listened to the story of Father Con. Sadly in Ireland today, you can’t assume that the local parish priest will be a personable and popular local figure. But Father Con was all that and more

And then they started talking about Covid and how Father Con had held the community together through successive lockdowns.

What he did was to do interviews with members of his congregation and the community and post them on his Facebook page. In Ireland, people are interested in people. So this became a means of holding the community together.

it struck a memory for me. In the really difficult days in Portadown, my Methodist colleague, Jim Rea, and I used to do ‘This is my story, this is my song.’ In the same way, it was a means of holding the community together with human stories when everything else threatened to tear it apart. The secret was that, when people shared their personal stories, it was impossible to tell Protestant from Catholic.

As we begin to emerge from the long Covid nightmare, it’s time to begin to ask where we are now and how we are going to rebuild

People like Father Con simply do what seemed to be an obvious way of holding together his community – not radical but obvious!

Ireland – after a year away

We’re back in Donegal after being away for a year. Just up the road in Portnablagh we met this – very Irish – quaint even. But then I thought of Portadown days. The dead were brought home. People gathered with tea, cake and the ubiquitous pavlova. This happens in communities where families have lived close for generations. A funeral is a community event and everybody understands how it is done properly. That is something precious.

And we had another example of what makes this kind of community special. A puncture on Saturday when we needed to go to the Stena Terminal in Belfast on Sunday. People like us go on the internet and ask, ‘Where can I get a puncture repaired on Sunday?’ To which the answer is ‘With great difficulty or not at all’. At which point a single phone call revealed that our nearest neighbour over the hill had what was needed and fixed it in five minutes. Good communities are full of people with skills and kindness.

Beaches around here are magnificent – and virtually deserted. The one we were on today had lots of children having surfing lessons. Some quick research shows that the Surf Schools are real engines of tourist development – making the most of our difficulties with travel – showing adults and children alike that there is very little to beat a Donegal beach, even in the rain

Meanwhile I think about what are the really big issues here.

Well Brexit obviously and the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ireland is an enthusiastic member of the EU and is also passionate about the Peace Process. Brexit faces in other directions.

I’ve also been following an issue which seems to me to illustrate the question whether Ireland is that modern, social-democratic, European country or – or maybe also – a regressive, religiously conservative country. That issue is the plan to build to build a new National Maternity Hospital on the site of the large St Vincent’s Hospital on the south side of Dublin. The issue is that the land on which this €800 million public hospital is to be built is in the trustee ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The state will lease the land for 99 years and the hospital itself will be a private charitable institution.

Ireland has long had difficulty with the question of whether Catholic moral teaching should apply within medical services. That question is obviously particularly acute in the context of a maternity hospital.

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been writing about this issue. In June he wrote that ‘A real republic should not have charity delivering public welfare’. And he goes on to say that ‘It is time to put a stake through the heart of this slavishness. Maternity and reproductive services are not charitable gifts.’

The vehemence of his language suggests that he sees this issue as another test case – a nation-defining issue -:for modern Ireland.

More of my story too

As I came to the end of Mary McAleese’s autobiography, I found myself drawn back two memories

The first was admiration of her ability to recall her experience of the very early days of the Troubles – and the costly and painful impact on her, her family and her community. In 1976, I set out in ministry as the Curate in Holy Trinity, Joanmount, which was just up the Ballysillan Road. We lived in Cliftondene Gardens very close to the peaceline/barricade which closed us off from Alliance Avenue and Ardoyne.

As the years have rolled by, I have often been surprised by the things from those days which I have forgotten – or which perhaps I choose not to remember – or more likely which I have tucked away somewhere in my mind from which they emerge unexpectedly!

Looking back, it seems to me as if we did our ministry as if things were normal. I went house to house visiting in the evenings even though there were no streetlights in much of the parish. I got used to putting my visiting card through the letterbox before the door would open. People were astonishingly resilient in very difficult times. Sometimes it was funny – like the lady whom I met in a house near the church. She told me that there was shooting on the road which led home for both of us – ‘but if I walk with you I’ll be all right’

And then I thought of something from much later on – from the 19 years we spent in Portadown, much of it overshadowed by the Drumcree parading disputes. President McAleese issued an invitation to the Portadown Orangemen to come to a Reception in her official residence in Dublin. Of course they were going – why would they not? And they wanted me to go with them. So Alison and I drove down from Donegal where were on holiday and joined them.

Mary McAleese’s peacemaking had two strands – she was fearlessly challenging to her ‘own’ community and she was warmly generous in reaching out across Ireland’s divisions, I admire her greatly for both,

My story too

I’ve been reading the autobiography of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese -‘Here’s the Story’. She read it recently on BBC Radio4 Book of the Week.

The picture with President McAleese and her husband, Martin, dates from St Patrick’s Day 2008 when I preached in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and attended a reception in the President’s official residence, Aras an Uachtarain. Alison and I are with Dean Robert McCarthy.

Mary McAleese and I were born within days of one another and her experiences are of particular interest to me. I hadn’t realised that she spent her childhood in North Belfast. She gives a graphic description of the early years of the Troubles. It was the period when I was away at university in Dublin and Oxford. In 1976, Alison and I returned to live within about half a mile from her home. It was as she describes it – a dreadful time of random rioting, burnings and shootings. North Belfast was an area of intermingled communities. So doorstep assassinations were common.

Many people have tried to sum up the deep roots of the conflict. Mary McAleese described it like this: ‘In schools, homes, communities and churches, carefully bundled formulae saw to it that no one, not even the best of neighbours, could easily detach from the adversarial bunkers birth had allocated each of them to’

What she calls the game changer for her generation of Catholics n Northern Ireland was the introduction of free second-level education at the end of the 1940’s. She says, ‘The excellent education we received in Catholic schools gave us the intellectual tools and self-confidence with which to challenge the vast presumptuousness and pomposity of the Protestant elite who governed Northern Ireland’. My experience is that the tragic counterbalance to that is the ‘brain drain’ of highly educated young people from the Protestant community leaving an obvious leadership deficit in their community. Neither I nor any of my siblings – nor do any of our three children – live in Northern Ireland.

Mary McAleese writes movingly of the Peace Process – that pursuit of the studied ambiguities which enable deep divisions and old hurts to be overcome. Particularly significant is her account of the process which led to the Queen’s State Visit in 2011 – a highly successful visit which changed the face of modern Ireland.

There is much to learn from this book – not just of the slow and steady movement towards some kind of peace – but also of Mary McAleese’s attempt to challenge the deep conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church.

Cry the Beloved Country

This stunning sculpture commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the capture of Nelson Mandela in 1962. He was to spend the next 27 years of his life in prison. It sits just off the main road north from Durban towards Pietermaritzburg. I was fortunate enough to see it on visits to South Africa in both 2017 and 2019. It is at the heart of the province of KwaZulu Natal where violence is tearing South Africa apart following the imprisonment of former President Zuma.

My first visit was in 2003. Like many people from Northern Ireland, I was drawn by the miracle of reconciliation which Mandela’s transformational leadership symbolised. I experienced South Africa’s poverty – the poverty which has not been relieved since majority rule came. I spent Holy Week in the Anglican Parish in Khayelitsha township in Capetown. The image which endures is the footwashing on Maundy Thursday – broad black feet used to walking barefoot washed in pink plastic basins. It felt Christ-like.

I spent a lot of time in Belleville, one of the affluent suburbs of Capetown. My aim was to ‘get inside’ the white Afrikaaner community because I wanted to find out if there were affinities with the Ulster Protestants among whom I worked. And there were – I didn’t have their language but I gradually found them to be delightful and friendly people who were perpetually puzzled by finding themselves on the wrong side of history. I shared their home baking and their hospitality. In the end, we talked – tentatively – about how you find your way when history deals you a difficult hand. It is the challenge which faces the Ulster Protestants to this day.

I spent time with the Diakonia ecumenical organisation in Durban and I spent a week with workers from Ulster Carpets in Portadown who were developing a carpet factory which Ulster Carpets had acquired just across the road from the airport in Durban.

My visits have continued – some work and some holiday – most recently a visit with friends to the Boer War and Zulu War Battlefields.

And now the dream and the hope which Mandela represented is at risk. South Africa may not have moved fast enough and far enough to remove poverty and create employment. Flawed leadership seems to have achieved that fatal combination which we also see in the US – of both stirring loyalty and destroying hope.

I fear that it will be some time before I can return. But South Africa, even in these dark days, will remain a beacon of hope – bad history can be turned around but it takes leadership of real spiritual depth to achieve it.

Have plug – will travel

Destination Grange-over-Sands to meet with friends. 182 miles – the Zoe claims a range of 245 miles. You would think it would easily do that – but it actually has an effective range of something under 200 miles.

So we planned a stop at Tebay Services – 150 miles and the battery was by then at 20%. All chargers on the south-bound side are Tesla. So we needed to cross to the Northbound side – taking in a No Entry sign en route. The charger worked once I had stepped into the hedge to avoid the bright sunlight which prevented me from reading the app which controls it. But once it started charging, we found that we were rationed to 45 minutes. So we moved on to Kittering Lake to top up. But the chargers weren’t working there.

And then we went to the underground car park at Booths in Kendal and charged to 100%. Success – at the third attempt!

There are no chargers at all in Grange-over-Sands but our hotel had offered us a three pin socket for our ‘granny charger’. We plugged in and went out for the day. But the Zoe soon sent me a message to say that charging had stopped because someone had taken the plug out!

Our journey home was better. Up the M6 to Booths in Penrith where the car park had chargers available 24 hours. We needed an hour to get to 100%. Tap on the window – car park now closes in an hour – but we had just enough time to get our charge completed


We got home from Penrith with a diversion to pick up grandchildren in Strathaven. 19% battery when we got home.

I’m sorry about this saga. The Zoe is as always swift and silent.
But the public charging network is an amateurish disaster. The range of the car matters – if it would do 400 miles we wouldn’t have any of these problems. But until we have EV’s which will do that, we need an effective, well-maintained charging network. And it just doesn’t exist.

Thought for the Day

This is my Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland on July 5

The schools are on holiday but the holidays are not the same.  The United Nations reported recently that the crash in international tourism due to the pandemic could cause a loss of over $4 trillion dollars in 2020-21.  Much of that loss will be felt in the economies of the developing world which benefit disproportionately from world tourism.  So many jobs in the travel and hospitality industries depend directly on tourism.

My family have been part of that change.  We too took the staycation option and have just returned from the Island of Lewis and the North West of Scotland.  We had some amazing weather – the scenery is utterly spectacular.  And even this year it wasn’t yet crowded.

 But sometimes you stumble across the unexpected which catches your attention and which you won’t easily forget.  At the entrance to the magnificent Loch Ewe we found the memorial to the seamen who sailed on the Arctic Convoys in World War II.  The convoys would gather in Loch Ewe before sailing to Iceland and on to the northern ports of Russia.  There is poignancy about it because for a long time the sacrifice of the 3000 sailors who lost their lives was not fully recognised.  We stood quietly and looked at the memorial to Charles Edward Kennerley and his fellow crew on HMS Bramble who were lost in the Barents Sea on 31 December, 1942.  And we thought about the dreadful weather and endless winter nights and the constant fear of the torpedo which would end it all coming from a hidden U boat.

 Absorbing that unexpected richness of memory and experience is what turns a journey into a kind of pilgrimage – pilgrimage in which we learn and are changed by what we experience.  It may be a staycation.  But it’s an opportunity to get closer to our own context and history and so to learn more about ourselves and who we are.