As the days lengthen and the sun breaks through wintry skies, and sea mists rise with the warming temperatures, it can be tempting to break out the summer wardrobe, to cast off the winter coats and to head to the beach. In the midst of a global pandemic we can almost forget what a common cold, or even the flu, feels like. And yet the wisdom of the ancients (or the tellers of old wives’ tales) were not wrong. Divesting ourselves of our winter woollies too soon can easily come back to haunt us. If, like last year, we have a mini heat wave in spring, (wouldn’t it be lovely), the very idea of waiting ‘til May is out’ to enjoy warm sun on our pale skin may well seem like madness. However there are generations upon generations of human experience behind this advice, often learned after bitter experience.
Of course, the parallel with our present circumstances is quite obvious; as vaccines emerge, and case numbers and hospitalisations continue to come down, it can be all too easy to jump ahead, bypassing several important steps. Our long year of really struggling can blind us to the necessity of persevering for some time yet. Even when society begins to open up more fully and we can see and meet each other once more, there will still be need for caution and care. While we hope to be well on the way to ‘returning to normal’ by September, the simple reality will be that masks, hand hygiene and social distancing etc will be with us for some years to come. I know this is a difficult message to hear as our coping abilities are in tatters and many of us badly need to hear a more hope-filled message, however, realistic and achievable expectations are critical to our long term wellbeing.
As restrictions ease, and normalcy returns, there will almost certainly be a surge of emotional explosions. All our pent-up frustrations are already beginning to leak out; you can see it in the eyes of people you meet: This is more than hard, it feels impossible. We badly need hope but it mustn’t be false hope. The coming weeks and months present us with an opportunity to prepare for each step as it emerges. Notice that I didn’t say ‘plan’. If we plan rather than prepare, we are already running ahead of ourselves. Planning focuses us predominantly on the future; preparation roots us in the here and now as we lay sustainable foundations for the future. Yes we need goals and a sense of what the future will be, but this is actually the time for reflecting on what has happened; learning the lessons, identifying where we are now, and focussing simply on ‘the next step’.
This is also true of our church communities. We literally can’t wait until we get back together again in worship, social interaction and community. We yearn for the simple pleasure of drinking tea together after service, enjoying the choir led liturgy with communal singing that soars to the heavens. It will come, it may look different to how we imagine it, but our focus must be on preparation rather than planning, on identifying the first step rather than the whole of the journey. When we return to unrestricted In-Church worship, familiarity will be critical but the world will have changed so much that we must also be prepared for change.
I remember when, in 2001-2002, we were preparing to move out of the Church to the Parochial Hall to facilitate essential refurbishment, the late Anne Denard, our Parish Archivist at the time, asked me what I had in mind for how we’d use the space of the hall for Sunday Worship. I glibly assured her that there was a plan; we’d enter via the main doors, and the communion table would be on the stage. She was rightly horrified, and explained that, as a community, we are more familiar with entering the church differently, the porch of the church, (and the hall funnily enough) were positioned at the back end of the building, off to the side, which enabled us to get our bearings first before going to our seats. So we did the very same in the Parochial Hall for over a year. The familiar was and is important, but Anne had another pearl of wisdom to teach me. ‘Rector’, she said, ‘the manner of our welcome is equally important!’ And she was right then, and now. Familiarity and welcome are our absolute priorities as we prepare to return to our Church building (an extended process that may span many months). We have been blessed over the past twelve months with a growing sense of Belonging within our community. We need to deepen that, to ensure that for those who were regular attenders and those who attended less often if at all, there is a warmth of welcome and a clear sense of where they are.
This new month sees the beginning of a listening process within our parish as we explore where we are as a parish community and family. It will be a process that spans several months and everyone connected in whatever way with our parish will be invited to be part of our communal listening. Listening to each other, building relationships and trust will be important, as will prayerfully listening to God. Some of us will find it frustrating as we may prefer to plan rather than prepare, some will certainly find the pace too slow (or too fast), some will prefer to opt out, (which is fine too, although each of us have a part to play, a voice and perspective to be heard). Our listening will be all the poorer without everyone taking part.
Our first focus in our listening process will be ‘How do we welcome, what works well and what could be improved’. The practicals of how to engage with this listening process will be spelt out over the coming days, but for now a gentle reminder: we must learn to walk together again, before we try to run. We have time and technology which will assist us as we listen to one another and God, and as we prepare.