We often say when someone quite elderly dies that it’s the end of an era. We usually mean that something is finished, gone and never to return. What we are implying is that the recently departed encapsulated a bygone age, the like of which we never see again? Sometimes an era can end when something goes out of style or is replaced by something very different. Arthur Miller once wrote ‘An era may be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted’. An insight that might rightly draw us to conclude that we, in 2020, are very much facing the end of an era. In a few short months everything has changed, quite possibly irrevocably. We were already becoming the ‘century of change’, as the nature and speed of change was growing exponentially over the past 20 years. I think this increasing momentum of change is one of the reasons that established (and establishment) churches are so often reluctant to change. While everything around us hurtled into new reality we comforted ourselves by holding fast to something that was stable, reliable, traditional (aka poignant). In 4 short months everything, absolutely everything has changed. How we socialise, how we connect, how we work, how we communicate, how we exercise, how we approach people, everything!
Including how we are church. While many of us crave our return to the familiar and comforting surroundings of our church buildings, they will be very different places to what we left only 14 or 15 weeks ago. Most of the dust of inactivity will have been swept away, but walking from your car to the front door of the church may well be the only familiar activity of your shortened visit to your place of worship. Eye catching yellow signs will be everywhere. Churchwardens and stewards will be distant (hopefully just physically). Someone will either tick a piece of paper on your arrival or ask you gently for your name and contact details as you begin to wonder where all the hymn books and prayer books are gone. And they are gone, replaced by service sheets or even the dreaded projector and screen. On a table beside you will be an array of hand sanitizer product for you to use under subtle supervision. Your dream of sitting in your old familiar seat may well be shattered by someone getting there before you or by a complex mathematical equation that determined which pews would have to be closed off to ensure a 2 metre distance between you and the other worshippers (you may take a moment to consider that the architect and planners of the beautiful building in which you have worshipped most of your life had no thought of social distancing when constructing a place of worship for much, much more than 50 people. As you fill the seats from the front to ensure proper protection for you and everyone else you may well resolve to come later next week to try sit nearer to the back. You will see the organist/musical director flitting about in preparation of playing familiar music but you will not see your parish choir yet because we will not be singing together for some considerable time (unless clarity is given from NPHET). A short said service full of meaning and familiar words will be followed not by tea or coffee and a chat but by a gentle admonition from the Rector that you leave no trace of your visit on your pew and you will be urged not to chat too much to others on your way back to your car.
I am painfully aware as I write this that I may well have dampened or even damaged your enthusiasm for returning to In-Church worship. Forewarned is forearmed, the era of church as we know it has changed and it is not yet clear for how long or whether it will ever be the same again. And yet in the midst of this we have so much to be thankful for. I remember the late Tom Molyneux telling me during the volcanic ash crisis of 2010 when the partial eruption of the relatively small volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused so much global disruption: that had it been one of the dozens of even larger active volcanoes in that country, parts of the earth would not be able to support life again. A sobering insight. As is the following: for all its global impact and horrendous loss of life, the Covid-19 pandemic is a relatively small event, certainly no Spanish flu nor global outbreak of Ebola. We are fortunate to live in an era of incredible communication and connectivity. It is expected that an antidote for this virus will be found in about half the time it usually takes (5 to 7 years).
If you are feeling overwhelmed by this, please don’t be. My words this week are designed to prepare not to engender fear and despair. Many people who know an awful lot more than me have told us that this too will pass! There will be life during and after Covid-19. But the world will be a very different place (I would love to say better but our track record as humans does not overly encourage me). It is not the crisis that defines us, it is what we do with it, how we cope with it, and how we learn and grow from it. This is especially true of Churches. If we were heading back to church with the expectation and determination that nothing will change, we may not just be disappointed but actually failing in what God is calling us ‘to be’ as well as ‘to do’. Churches are to be places and communities of sanctuary, spiritual fulfilment and adaptability where the expectation is not simply that ‘others’ will change to join us but rather that we will change and shape ourselves to meet the people God has called us to serve and support.
The world is not ending, but it is changing. If that unsettles you or even overwhelms, you hold fast to some simple biblical truths rather than crumbling traditions.
‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’. Hebrews 13:8.
‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’. Deuteronomy 33:27
‘Never will I leave you never will I forsake you’. Hebrews 13:5
‘Lo I am with you even to the end of time!’ Matthew 28:20