COVID-19 in for the long run – church and society

Prof Whitty (Chief Medical Officer for England) said today (July 31st 2020) “The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong,”. We have probably gone as far as we can in opening up Society. It makes sense. We have reduced the constraints with which we have learnt to live. The virus is now reaching a growing number of people. This suggests that the release of lockdown is enabling this. So we need to lockdown harder than we are doing ‘at present’, but all the Government is suggesting is not freeing us up as quickly ‘at the moment’.

In the Church many are still trying to return to ‘normal’ – to things as they were. Instead, in society and in the church, we need to recognise that we are in this for the long run and to adapt to a different situation for this ‘long run’.

That already requires changes to our behaviour and practices that have never before been needed or envisaged. So what are we going to do, and what are we going to stop doing? And love of our neighbour as well as preservation of ourselves, demands that we act quickly. Churches are not very good at swift change. Sociologically they are predicated on maintaining and promulgating the institution rather than on loving the individual.

Covid-19 and communion – Methodist Recorder May 1st 2020

The following article was submitted to the Methodist Recorder and published under the head: The crucial challenge facing us all. It expresses a personal view but is written from the perspective of Methodism in the UK. I am re-publishing it here, being aware that not everyone reads the Methodist Recorder.

Central to our faith is an understanding that God is love, and an expression of this is our capacity to see Christ in others and represent Christ to them. If Christians use this as a lens to test their response to Covid-19 it might produce some interesting reflections. An early response to the virus was to set up networks to distribute food to vulnerable people. That makes sense in that it mirrors early Christian care in Acts. Following Peter’s Pentecost sermon the people repented and began an exploration of what it meant to live differently. They met to share their meals in their homes, with the affirmation that they held all in common and distributed help to those who would otherwise be in need.

This has led me to wonder how different the church might be after Covid 19. Just how willing are we as individuals, and as an institution, to risk embracing change, renewed after some form of repentance, or will we reassume our old ways.

As we approached Easter, the denominations entered discussion and debate as to how, in lockdown, they could worship. Hitherto this had been corporate, taking place in dedicated buildings with formalised liturgies and, sometimes elaborate, ritual. The degree to which this formality had been concretised over millennia was evidenced by the form and tradition of the words and the actions that accompany them. In addition, in some denominations liturgical dress itself has been determined down to the nature of the garments, how they are prepared and worn. For some this is significant, but it lacks the simplicity that I read of in Acts or the Gospels.

As Christians sought to celebrate the Eucharist this Easter we witnessed the Archbishop of Canterbury in his kitchen with his wife presiding at a liturgy while fully robed. Nothing could be further from an ordinary meal shared in a family home and it had the feel of having crossed over into a TV cookery show. I don’t say that in criticism of the Archbishop who is as much captive to culture, tradition and expectation as any of us. Others tried to ‘gather’ virtual congregations who were expressly directed not to share bread and wine and were, by definition, separate from one another. Still others provided recorded presentations of worship or contemplation. At the same time those who can’t access the internet have been offered varied fare by radio, television or in print.

All of our attempts to maintain worship are laudable, but perhaps miss a crucial challenge. The first worship of the early Christians was, arguably, under lockdown, took place in family homes, with no sense of hierarchy or superiority of any participants. Probably they decided amongst themselves who would break the bread. Maybe culture dictated the eldest male. I’m not sure it was a religious or theological choice. Perhaps Mum decided?

(See https://twitter.com/ruthmw/status/1256317999792832512?s=21)

For us at Easter, and for the immediate future, a truly refreshing sense of repentance of misunderstanding could be to encourage the acted parable of people sharing a meal of bread and wine organised by and participated in by family members, or individuals, themselves at home. This might be regarded as radical or innovative, if not wrong, yet it would actually be more closely historically grounded than our authorised acts of worship to which we have become accustomed Sunday by Sunday.

All this would lack would be an assurance of ‘authenticity’. It would be outside of the authoritarian control of those who ‘know’ how it should be done. We still haven’t learnt the lessons of colonialism from a negative point of view, or liberation theology as a positive. Putting it another way we seem to have re-learnt the Pharasaism that Jesus criticised. I recollect a story of Jesus. A beast of burden had fallen into a ditch. But it was the Sabbath. Human rules said it should be left there. Jesus countered that. Our human rules say that special authorised people like me have to Preside at communion. Far nearer to Pharasaism than to Jesus, I think. Reading scripture carefully, from where we are under lock down in a 21st century world, might well take us to a very different place than that in which the church finds itself. There is talk of a new Reformation. Interestingly, some other denominations are nearer to this than Methodism. Perhaps we are clinging too much to John Wesley’s authoritarian governance, rather than owning his willingness to risk breaking rules when this is what the Gospel, the love of neighbour, required.

Rev Dr Andrew Pratt (Supernumerary Presbyter and one time Acting Principal of Hartley Victoria College).

 

 

COMMUNION IN A TIME OF COVID – some thoughts for discussion

COMMUNION IN A TIME OF COVID – some thoughts for discussion

My son was killed some years ago in an accident.  I remember him mostly when I do things that we did together. I don’t need any other intervention. Just me and my memory.

Arguably the first disciples remembered meals they had with Jesus in the same way. The New English Bible then described the first followers of Jesus going to the temple and in their homes  ‘sharing their meals together with unaffected joy’. Paul describes what had been remembered of Jesus last meal with his disciples. He includes the words of Jesus, ‘do this in remembrance of me. The word ‘remembrance’ translates the word ‘anamnesis’. This literally means ‘re-member’, that is to reassemble that meal whenever they shared bread or wine – an ordinary meal. We are also told that we will eat unworthily if we do not discern ‘the body of Christ’.

No mention here of Bishops, Priests or Deacons. No church. A meal at home. People sharing with each other and trying to capture the essence of that last meal with Jesus: prayers, bread broken, wine shared. We are all equal under God, but over years we have decided humanly that someone set aside should emulate Jesus. If we are all truly equal we do not need that setting apart. We are, truly, a Priesthood of all Believers. Yet we honour that in word, but not in practice. The followers in Acts would, I think, find it, perhaps, pretentious that we would today be worrying over who, in our terms, ‘presides’. What are we trying to re-member? Arguably what was encapsulated in the sharing of that last meal. Sadly we risk reducing it into mechanical actions and specific words, or debate about what happens to the bread and wine, or who does what. That feels strange and it should. The arguments and statutes were laid down by people like us as the church was seeking to concretise them by circa 2OO CE, perhaps a matter of control, but sadly missing the central focus of an acted parable.

Around that first last meal was a disparate group of men who, if they candidated for ministry today might well be rejected. What is significant is not the ‘Elements’ but the people. Their leader washes their feet. He accepts two argumentative brothers, a terrorist (zealot), one who denies and another who betrays – a misbegotten group – an embryo church. This group is The Body of Christ and those who meet together for this anamnesis are The Body of Christ. We are the ones who should discern the value and significance of one another, our neighbours, our sisters and brothers and that is what really matters, to see Christ in each other and be Christ to each other.

I recognise the discipline of the church, but at a time like this I really think we are missing the point.  If sharing bread and wine with each other is a means by which we value each other and therefore offer a means of grace how we do it, where we do it and with whom we do it matters little. The status of the so called ‘President’ is irrelevant.

I write this in my own name and not that of the Methodist Church but it is, as Fred Kaan once wrote, ‘a sacrament of care’ that could ‘fill a human house with love’ –

To fill each human house with love,
it is the sacrament of care;
the work that Christ began to do
we humbly pledge ourselves to share.

From: ‘Now let us from this table rise’ Fred Kaan (1929-2009 © 1968 Stainer & Bell Ltd