The big questions

Huge events leave searching questions in their wake.

I’ve been working on material to share with a group of clergy next week – exploring the post-Covid world which we hope is now beginning to beckon. No problem with the obvious questions which churches face – about the continuation or not of online worship, about the challenge of rebuilding congregations and many others

But the real questions may be ones like, ‘So what do faith communities have to say and offer to the post-Covid world?’ and ‘Will we find that the way we were before Covid isn’t there any more and that we have to be made new?’

The pandemic has shaken our society to its foundations. Easy notions that life will always be as it has been – and that problems can always be fixed – have been shown to be false. Inequality abounds – the pandemic has affected different age and ethnic groups to a greater or lesser extent. Some people have been impoverished and others enriched because their income was secure and they couldn’t spend it. Employment has become yet more fragile. Personal freedoms have been hugely inhibited in the interest of the common good. Successive lockdowns have challenged our mental health. We have all been forced to look our mortality in the eye. Many have been painfully bereaved and unable to mourn properly. There has been absolute heroism in the people most affected and in the carers.

That picture – however incomplete and however inadequately expressed – is the world which we in the faith communities are going to have to address. Christians would say that these are Gospel questions – what we say of comfort and hope and faith – what pictures of meaning we can offer – to a world of suffering and insecurity which needs some hope to enable it to move forwards. I think we need to help that world to find a new spiritual and moral rootedness.

In terms of the ability of churches to meet that challenge, I hope that we may find that, even if the pandemic leaves us to some extent institutionally weaker, it will leave us spiritually more agile and better able to speak and act out of the heart of what our faith is about.

These moments of challenge come around in all sorts of different guises. In my own lifetime, I think about what it was like to emerge from the decades-long Troubles of Northern Ireland. The long years of violence drove people back into sectarian blocs which artificially made churches look stronger. The coming of peace – of a kind – has gradually been reversing that movement and churches have to find a new narrative for more secular and maybe less sectarian times.

The Celtic Tiger period in Ireland was another. Unimagined prosperity arrived and everything changed. It proved to be a great engine of secularisation – once again one which requires a new narrative. Ireland is no longer the almost universally religious country which it was

Every institution and organisation has to face these moments. Last week at the Funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh we were watching the monarchy beginning to respond to similar challenges. The lonely and bereaved monarch sitting on her own moved hearts. The lesson was of identification – others may disobey the rules because they are powerful and think they can get away with it. But she did not.

I can’t resist the bizarre story of the demise of the new European Superleague. At first I neither cared nor understood. But the narrative from fans and players gradually became clear. Football in which it isn’t possible for a team to lose and be relegated isn’t worth anything – no matter how many millions it generates for already rich owners. There is spirituality of a kind in that understanding.

These are moments of seismic change. We can probably only work it out gradually and as we live it. By the time I meet the clergy next week – on Zoom of course – I hope to be maybe half a step further on!

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