As we get a taste for the ‘new normal’ during phase 2+ of the removing of restrictions, it is natural for many of us to be wary and cautious, and even more than a little nervous. Navigating your way through narrow footpaths (or risking life and limb by stepping out onto even busier roadways) heightens those feeling of anxiety. Walking up Bray main street yesterday after zigzagging my way along the Prom left me drained and slightly annoyed. Did everyone need to congregate for long missed chats at the narrowest points of the pathways? Did those walking ‘against the tide’ of keeping left on Bray Promenade not pick up on the probably too subtle signal that the 2 metre distancing etchings on the ground were also direction guiders? Did that group of teenagers need to walk in packs of five?
As I was wallowing in self-righteous indignation over my hot beverage in my peaceful and soothing garden afterwards I began to realise that the answer to the above questions was ‘sometimes yes’.
Sometimes, yes, those people did need to stop and chat, because one or other had recently been bereaved or ill, and the others rightly needed to comfort and connect. And the reason they were causing a bottleneck was because they were trying to adhere to a two metre distance while doing so! Sometimes, yes, those walking towards me on the wrong side of the Prom were trying to avoid close contact with those sitting on the wall eating ice creams, or even trying to make their way past others who were walking straight towards them! Sometimes, yes, those five teenagers were closer than recommended but because they were approaching the gateway to the house they were visiting to meet with another friend who was struggling with life and they had already been social distancing (I had just missed it) and their friend had already set up chairs in the back garden at the required 2 metre distance!
There are a number of people who are undoubtedly flouting the restrictions, but as I reflected on my wearying walk, I realised that they were very much in the minority. Because I was only getting snapshots of moments, and processing them through an emotionally cluttered brain, I was misreading the reality. To put it simply (and slightly theologically), I was lacking in Grace in my struggle for space! Grace is another word for love, it actually means ‘love in action’. St Paul reminds us that ‘Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrong. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). These words take on a whole new level of meaning in a Covid-defined world. Try to be patient, try to see the bigger picture, try to reintroduce eye contact. The weight of Covid-19 and its implications are in danger of costing us the ability to be kind, to connect and to widen our perspective.
The multitude of emotions that many of us are experiencing in the now constantly changing return to life as we have never known it before is deep and potentially damaging. We are in danger of developing a new form of social isolation having only just emerged from the scarring physical isolation of Lockdown. I suspect that far too much of our time and headspace is being given over to watching and lamenting what ‘others’ are doing. This is both unhelpful and pointless. Our frustration deepens because we realise, at some level, that we cannot change the behavior of others (no matter how many complaining posts we put up on social media) we can only really control our response. Grace is a choice, it is an option, an opportunity to free ourselves from the shackles of fear.
We are all, rightly, being encouraged to ‘stay local and shop local’. Local businesses (those that are able to re-open and/or survive) need our support and encouragement. They are working even harder than ever to ensure that their customers come first (albeit their paying customers). Mistakes will be made, tension will overflow, clusters of Covid may even flare up occasionally, but all of us are genuinely trying to work all of this out as we go along rugged and unfamiliar pathways. This is true of churches too. Having learned very quickly that new ways of ‘being church’ were needed to support and encourage everyone at this time of great unease and crisis, we are now finding ourselves in the position of having to hasten our plans to return to physically present worship. While we welcome the opportunity of this return, we too are conscious that great care and consideration cannot be rushed.
There will be much more detail about this over the coming weeks, but for now, our plan at the end of Phase 2 + is to return very gradually to our church building over the months of July and August. Much of it will be trial and error, and for those of us who do get to meet physically in worship it will be a very different but hopefully still enriching experience. We envisage the main focus of our Sunday worship will continue to be our 11:00am live stream services for some weeks into Phase 3 as we learn how best to gather safely and sustainably.
Be patient with us, we have plenty of room but how we use that room in our new reality is still emerging. It’s very much a matter of ‘Grace and Space’!
P.S. The Church of Ireland House of Bishops and the Representative Church Body have issued a comprehensive set of protocols for In-Church worship which we have included below this blog. Well worth a read to give you a sense of the scale of what’s involved in reopening church buildings. Baden