I was so warmed to read of the greetings that the Rev’d Richard Teal, President of the Methodist Conference and Carolyn Lawrence, our Vice- President have sent to faith leaders at the time of Diwali. It is good for us to be reminded at a time when everything seems to be focussed on ‘having a normal Christmas’ that it is not just we as Christians but Jews, Muslims, Hindus and those of other faiths who are called on to make sacrifices for the good of others. So may we travel through Advent humbly and, for all the sacrifice, follow the example of others who have worshipped virtually, mixed less freely, loved more fully during their religious festivals. Let us do this even if it means keeping our churches closed until secular closed venues, say theatres, are able to open again safely.
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.
My contribution to these studies this week beginning today 29 June 2020 at https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/the-bible/a-word-in-time/2020/28-june-4-july/sunday/
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?
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).