Who could have guessed that when we last met for our Parish Annual General Meeting in late April 2019 that all would change so utterly within such a short year and more. On reflection, we, and most of the world, sleepwalked into a pandemic, never quite realising the massive impact a relatively simple virus could have all across the planet. Covid-19 has been devastating, truly awful and cruelly efficient in its dictatorship. And yet, as ever, stories of incredible bravery, kindness, courage and even sacrifice have emerged. A Catholic priest in Italy got the virus. His parishioners funded a ventilator for him, but as he lay in ICU, dangerously ill, he insisted the ventilator should go to a young man nearby who would have died without the breathing apparatus. Countless accounts of front-line staff putting their own safety at risk in the care of their patients. Far too many who have died have been those very carers, and the most vulnerable in our Nursing Homes and hospitals. A deep unsettling fear has spread much quicker than infected aerosol molecules and we find ourselves exhausted, overwhelmed and anxious about an uncertain future.
Alongside that fear, remarkable acts of kindness and support have emerged. We as a nation and as a community have, time and again, adapted to ever changing normalities, not just to protect ourselves, but actually to protect others too. Simply wearing a mask/face covering doesn’t really protect us, but we wear them now to protect others. At a time when there is growing anger and frustration at the actions and inactions of ‘a few’, this caring for others gives me hope. I am proud of all the sometimes simple but profound things that our parishioners have been doing for others. I am especially proud of the determination of so many of our young people to do the right thing, even at times of great personal anxiety and fear.
Churches too have had to quickly adapt to new realities and you are already aware of all that has changed in just six months in how we ‘are’ and ‘do’ church. I want to pay tribute to David, Tracey and John in particular for all they have done to ‘keep the show on the road’ but also to try to grow our impact on those we serve. From the earlier days of the lockdown our priority has been to stay connected with parishioners of all ages. It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t always worked; while we have vastly improved our online connections of worship and communication, it has not yet been possible to properly and fully came alongside our oldest members in Nursing Homes, nor our younger members in the plethora of online activities they are drawn to. I am increasingly aware and concerned about the number of our parishioners who are going through trials and struggles (medically, financially and emotionally) without the full level of care and support we as a church could and should be providing.
Covid-19 has stolen much from us, and while we have been able to ‘stay connected’, one of the key things we as a parish family are losing is a sense of ‘belonging’.
Over the years that sense of belonging to a vibrant, dynamic and caring community has been one of our hallmarks. While we mightn’t always get on or agree, we were all part of something, a common vision, a shared faith, a sense of togetherness. It’s not that we have fallen away from this legacy, its actually been more of a slow but sustained drift. At a time of deep personal crisis our natural instinct is to circle the wagons and protect our own; social-distancing, cocooning, covering faces are all absolutely essential and critically important, but the impact is to isolate and separate us; to cut us off from each other at a time when we need community and human contact more than ever. Staying connected isn’t enough, we urgently need, both as a community and as a society, to find new sustained ways of belonging to each other. I remember as a child, seeing a cartoon of commuters on a train sitting in their own contained bubbles as they travelled, a comic depiction of an isolating future that is sadly all too possible now. I also remember in 1999 being really cross when I heard the then finance minister expound the virtues of ‘individualisation’ (and its implied companion, individualism). The truth is we have been practising social isolating for many years, only emerging to acknowledge and support our neighbours in times of heavy snowfalls and pandemics. Second only to our properly resourcing our frontline staff in hospitals, schools and on the streets, is the need to prioritise the re-discovery and developing a common sense of belonging.
We like to think that our shared response to Covid-19 has brought us closer together as a society, or even as a parish; sadly I don’t believe this to be true. We urgently need to creatively redefine and implement a new sense of what it means to ‘belong’. As a parish, as most of our shared activities cease for a season, as those things which we can do together go online, it is imperative we work together to identify who we are as a Christian church and how we grow deeper in our individual faith but also in our common and shared worship. By fixing our eyes on Jesus, His love, His example, His promises, we have a roadmap for being church together. We as a parish are currently like a large jigsaw puzzle, many of the pieces scattered, some turned upside down, the box lid with the picture we’re meant to be following lying somewhere on the floor. But all is not lost, there is genuinely true hope. Our corner pieces (connection) are in place and we are busy re-aligning our parameters so that every person of any age who wants and needs to be a part of a beautiful image can find their place of peace, involvement and most importantly, where they belong.