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!

Clergy work from home too

The debate about whether or not people will ‘return to the office’ is hotting up.  People value the lifestyle gains – the loss of those hours spent on a stressful commute, the possibility of choosing to live somewhere more rural and maybe even less expensive.  

Employers seem to vary in their views.  Fewer big – and expensive – office buildings will help the ‘bottom line’.  But they worry about the loss of potential creativity when people are not interacting around the water cooler.  There is a whole new jargon – like ‘proximity bias’ which means that those who are most visible are more likely to receive whatever favour is around.

Meanwhile the housing market is changing.  People are expanding their house searches into areas which they wouldn’t have felt able to consider before.  Garden sheds, garages and attics are being scrutinised for their potential as work spaces.  I suspect that what are becoming known as hybrid patterns of working may become the norm – one or two days in the office and the rest at home.  Schroeders are saying that they will expect everyone to live close enough that they can be in the office ‘tomorrow’ if required.

Clergy of course know all about this.  And so do farmers.  The Rectory sits – in theory at least – in the middle of the parish or congregational area and assumes, I suppose, a model of ministry which is pastorally orientated.  The Rector works sometimes from a dedicated study and often from a spare bedroom.  It’s a model with great strengths – but in reality its appropriateness erodes when people’s lives are lived on networks rather than in neighbourhoods.

In my days as Rector of a parish in Northern Ireland, I worked on what is now a fashionably hybrid model.  In effect, I did the spiritualities in the Rectory and decamped to the Parish Office for administration, management, meetings and all the rest.  I found it helpful to have a definite separation between those two.  But I know if course that the administration and management are all part of the spirituality.

Meanwhile clergy life experiences its own version of these questions.   Vestries are very aware of the cost of maintaining a rectory.  Some wonder if a smaller house would do.  Others suggest it might be better for clergy to be able to buy their own homes and have a foot on the housing ladder rather than to live as Canon 17 requires ‘in the house provided’.  That has its merits but it isn’t the system which we operate – and clergy have a tax break which protects them from Capital Gains Tax on a house which they own but do not occupy.  I do think that the pastoral rationale for our present system is less compelling than it was.  But what the tied housing system does do is to preserve at least the aspiration that clergy will be able to move to ‘wherever the call comes’ without being inhibited by differentials in house prices.

All of this is part of the great ‘shake-out’ which is coming as the crisis period of pandemic moves away and we begin to be able to recognise the long term changes which it has brought

To Vaxx or not to Vaxx

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Health Minister Matt Hancock said of the 19 people in Royal Bolton Hospital who have Covid,

The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone. It just reinforces the message that people should come forward and get vaccinated because that is the best way to protect everybody.’

I was quite taken aback by his directness. Openly criticising the voters is not a great look. Of course it’s frustrating that people should – for whatever reasons – decide not to have the vaccine. It’s an argument which belongs in the same area as the one about seat belt wearing.

But on some level, people surely must have the right to choose – and I guess they have that right whether their choice arises from a genuinely held fear or from contextual issues or even from conspiracy theories.

But equally surely the right to choose can’t be exercised in a way which takes no account of the consequences and particularly of the consequences for others. Those of us who have been offered and have accepted vaccination have seen that as a way of keeping ourselves and others safe. Those who refuse vaccination have the same obligation – to act in a way which is most likely to keep themselves and others safe.

Sadly the nature of Covid – and of the ever more transmissible strains such as the Indian variant – is that it is hard to see how those who refuse vaccination are going to be able to fulfil that obligation to the rest of society even as they exercise their right to choose. Society could decide that to uphold that right in this circumstances is not viable. That would mean that vaccination would become compulsory. But that is clearly both impossible and undesirable.

There is no simple answer to this issue – it’s just one more example of the way in which Covid and our response as a society to it has in effect removed significant areas of personal freedom from every one of us. And part of the journey back from this terrible period in our lives is going to be that of working out how those freedoms are going to be restored.

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!

Big Government

I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with the US. Many visits and many friends – much time spent working on the historic relationship between the Scottish and the American Episcopal Churches. So I thought it was a bit ironic that my final working visit to the US began when I preached at the Diocesan Convention in Cleveland, Ohio four days after the 2016 Presidential Election – in the heart of Trump country. I remember a sense of real foreboding as I watched the building of the dais where Donald Trump was soon to be sworn in and would make his notorious ‘America First’ speech.

The commentators are working hard on their assessment of the Trump years – excellent material like John Sopel’s ‘Unpresidented’

But it’s a real surprise that they are now having to come to terms with the speed and determination of President Joe Biden’s move to the progressive left. Many appear dumbstruck by Biden’s sheer audacity. Over a long career, he was many things but never a radical. Reversing normal practice, he ran from the centre, yet now he governs from the progressive left. Perhaps, at 78, he feels he has little to lose and the nation much to gain. Biden is a man in a hurry and spurring him is not only an older man’s zeal but a crude calculation. The Democrats’ majority in Congress is wafer-thin and the 2022 midterms loom.

In part this is about the return of ‘big government’. Some compare him to President Franklin D Roosevelt whose New Deal saw America through the Great Depression and World War II. Irish President Michael D Higgins put it like this:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

People write with appreciation of the competence of the new administration and its readiness to listen and to take ideas on board.

But some things look very familiar to anyone who has tried to offer radical leadership in a conservative/traditional context. I used to say in the parish that ‘I would always approach from the right’ if I wanted people to go with me. Biden is really interesting in his approach. After Donald Trump’s non-stop Twitter assault on the psyche of the American people, Biden is quiet and invisible for much of the time. They say he has the gift of making his most daring and radical proposals seem utterly boring.

And the polls seem to suggest that it is working. Public support is high. And one more thing …. Biden is a natural ‘crosser of the aisle’ – always wanting to see if he can make a cross-party approach work. At this moment, he has made the pragmatic assessment that that isn’t going to work for him with today’s Republican Party and he is forging ahead anyway. Even the most dedicated healers and reconcilers sometimes need to recognise when that just isn’t going to work.

After Covid – Michael D

President Michael D Higgins of Ireland is a most delightful man – cultured, intelligent and compassionate. Often known simply as ‘Michael D’ He is also a poet and, like most people in Ireland, quite a character. If you haven’t seen the wonderful take-off of his state visit to Britain, you will enjoy this

President Higgins on State Visit to Britain

Meanwhile he has been musing on the future after Covid with Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. But first you get a sense of how he deals with the relative isolation of these times in his official residence in the Phoenix Park in Dublin

“I go out with my dog,” he says via Zoom, “and I walk around the periphery here. I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much exaggerated social distancing.” 

The question which absorbs many of us at the moment is how life is going to be when the pandemic crisis eventually comes to an end. In particular we wonder how we can avoid a repetition of what happened after the financial crash of 2008 where basically we bailed out the banks and life continued pretty much as before..

I find myself constantly wondering how we can understand better the flaws in our society which have been ruthlessly exposed by Covid – where wealth and social class have greatly affected risk and where BAME communities have been disproportionately affected. If the government in London does ultimately concede the enquiry which is so badly needed, we may have a chance of finding out. The worst thing will be for us just to pick up and be delighted that we can carry on ‘as normal’. To some extent, we will all do that – socialising and maybe even beginning to travel again – but we owe it to those who have suffered so much to do much more.

President Higgins, who used to be a Labour politician in Ireland, says that there is a real challenge to the ‘ever-smaller government’ mindset:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

Lockdown – gilded cage for some

I’ve now lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown.  We miss the stimulation of social contact.   I devour the papers.  l read a lot.  We trawl Netflix and the rest hoping – usually in vain – for diversion.  We try to have a walk most days.  I’ve been decorating in our house. 

Beyond that, we look after our grandchildren as we are allowed to do.  And we Zoom with friends.  

We may be bored.  But it’s a privileged lifestyle in retirement,  We live more simply than usual and we spend less.  Our pensions keep coming.  We aren’t unemployed or likely to be so.   We aren’t struggling to keep a business which we have built up afloat.  We are fortunate

Irish Times journalist Una Mullally wrote recently that,

The divide is between those who have not been financially hit by the pandemic and those who have not just been financially devastated, but have seen their livelihoods implode

But perhaps the greatest social, cultural and political force right now, and into the future, is resentment. Resentment is a potent force and sometimes lacks a basis in reality, gets weaponised and finds the wrong targets. But this time it’s authentic.’

This is bad enough when we are still in the midst of the pandemic.  But it has profound implications in the post-Covid world.  Things surely will not just ‘go back to normal’.  Some like the retired and those who have been paid by the government will continue to be relatively secure and will enter the post-Covid world with some reserves accumulated when we didn’t have much to spend money on.

Those for whom Covid has brought financial disaster will start in the new post-Covid world at a significant disadvantage – and they will have to rebuild not just their finances but their initiative and their hope.’

This is inequality – and to some extent injustice.  It certainly strikes at the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative.  Plainly we aren’t – and there are all the other differences as well .. big houses and small apartments, for example

Writing in the Church Times (19 February) Bishop Peter Selby drew attention to the Financial Conduct Authority forecast that ‘

one in three adults is likely to cut back on essentials; one in ten to will use a foodbank; one quarter will be financially vulnerable, and one eighth will face increased debts — all increases of about 15 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, the charity sector has been hit by a tidal wave of demand and a serious reduction in income.

I’m not quite sure where this leads. But it certainly suggests to me that, when the economy opens up again, people who have been financially secure during lockdown need to think about the impact of their spending on jobs. Those who have suffered need to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible.