Sunday, June 21, 2020

Trinity 2 at Coventry Cathedral 21st June 2020

Once upon a time there was a wealthy man who enjoyed a special relationship with God – so special that they agreed that God had chosen HIM to be a blessing to the whole world. Like many men of his day, -the cultural context is really important – this man owned a whole retinue of slaves, who did his bidding morning, noon and night.
This man also had a wife – but no children.
This perplexed and grieved the couple. In conversation with God, the words “Father of a great nation” had definitely come up…but you can’t be a father without a child to call your own. What was this man – whom of course you recognise as Abraham – to do?
From our perspective, the answer is frankly shocking. His barren wife, Sarah, commanded one of her slave girls to take her place in Abraham’s bed, and to bear him a child. She deliberately set out to exploit another human being – treated a person like a thing, existing only to meet her own need…Those who know Margaret Attwood''s Handmaid's Tale will have seen a chilling development of this theme, and here too, unsurprisingly, trouble followed.
Of course, at first it seemed like an answer to prayer when Hagar bore a son – hence his name. Ishmael – meaning “God listens” – is born…At last a son and heir…a dream come true. And they all lived happily ever after.
Except – in this story many of the worst aspects of humanity come to the fore. Against all the odds, another son is born to Abraham, a child for Sarah, who was said to be barren. And, just like that, Ishmael’s value plummets. He is no longer the treasured first born but a threat to Sarah’s longed-for child. He is last year’s toy – to be discarded now he is no longer needed. Abraham – the father of a great nation – the revered icon of faith and obedience – opts for a quiet life and allows Sarah to manipulate the future, yielding to her demand that he
Cast out this slave woman with her son”.
Notice how Sarah has begun to dehumanise her. She no longer has a name. A line has been drawn and mother and child are placed firmly on the far side of it. They are othered…no longer Hagar and Ishmael, part of the family, but “this slave woman and her son”…You can almost hear the venom in Sarah’s voice
And Abraham…He’s a patriarch, revered throughout history...of COURSE he’s going to stand up for justice for his child…to recognise that Hagar and Ishmael are already disadvantaged, since Isaac is the son of his marriage. This is flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, right? Right?
Well, it’s true that he IS perturbed, distinctly uncomfortable indeed. Not only is he dealing with a request to banish Ishmael and his mother, he is also coming face to face with an aspect of his beloved wife’s character that he surely can’t be proud of. Perhaps, like me, he goes a long way to avoid conflict...He knows Sarah’s attitude is unfair – but he hopes that someone else will intervene – and indeed, he is reassured by God that all will turn out OK. On that basis he is somehow content to send mother and son away with only a loaf of bread and a skin of water, banishing the source of his discomfort rather than deal with the problem. He has bought in to the theory that some lives matter more than others…that it’s fine to prioritise the needs of your own nearest and dearest and exclude others, hoping that someone else will sort out their situation.
Actually, both he and Sarah have fallen fair and square into that trap which our Cathedral challenges in its very bones…They have divided the world into us and them, those who really matter…those on the inside…and those we push outside as somehow less deserving.
Remember the power of the missing word?…We say Father forgive – not Father forgive THEM – and that’s not just about shared culpability for the issues of the is a clear reminder of our shared humanity – that there is NOBODY on the other side of the line because in reconciling the WORLD to himself, Christ has erased that line forever...
But we forget too easily, and when we do, we send Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness once again
We do so, too, when we deny the reality of racism, however unconscious, in our selves and in our society…We do so when we try to alleviate our discomfort and smooth over the passionate anger that is fuelling the “Black lives matter” debate by insisting “All lives matter”…Of course they do (no “us” and “them”) – but if you remember the parable of the lost sheep, the good shepherd could not rest til all was well for each and every one of his flock...and knew that at that precise moment he needed to pay particular attention to the one who was needed help..
We do so when we insist “I’m not racist” but refuse to recognise the layers of injustice that permeates our society, unnoticed and unchallenged. If you doubt their reality, there are many many statistics to make the point. This IS our problem, albeit in different ways from the experience in the States…
More widely, we do so when we suggest that there is no need to celebrate Pride month, because that battle is won – or even, perhaps, that “people like that” should not be free to celebrate their identity...When it takes a pandemic to make us aware of all those people who were not able to worship with us simply because they can’t get through our doors…
We are still adept at pushing those who make us uncomfortable out into the wilderness.
But, what happens to Hagar and Ishmael there?
They encounter God, who meets their needs and stays with Ishmael to see him grow up and find his place in the world...God who loves each precious child far too much to abandon even one...who will ensure that all that is covered up in our hearts and our lives and our society will be made known...who so cares for all his creation that he notices when a sparrow falls to the ground.
Our gospel reminds us that when we ally ourselves with God’s revolution, when we stand with the broken-hearted, speak up for the excluded, support the weak, it won’t make us popular. Here in the Church we have a tendency to try to be direct our efforts into upsetting nobody...It’s something I really struggle with myself...but it’s not the gospel invitation. Not peace, but a sword, because the struggle is REAL. We need to be ready to fight – to challenge injustice wherever we may see it, even within the hearts and minds of those we love...and to offer hope that God is already making all things new. Will you join me? Can we hold one another to account, so that we may come to live out the Magnificat wherever we turn, placing the first last, the last first and losing our own lives, with all their protective self-interest, to gain the life of the Kingdom?
The call is clear. Let’s pray for the courage to answer it.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: when the foundations are shaken...some thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week

Health warning: These are very limited and partial observations drawn from my own experience. Please, please, please if you are struggling do not be afraid to ask for help. 
You can reach Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT on 85258

An optimist by nature, with a plethora of blessings to count every day, I've always taken good mental health for granted. After all, I reasoned, if I could survive the loss of two parents in six months while taking A levels, and later deal with the grief of several miscarriages, it stood to reason that my psyche must be pretty robust.
Even when I realised, as I grew older, that "coping" was not always the wisest strategy, that there were times when the sensible thing to do was simply to shout for help, I rejoiced that occasional grey days when tears were not far away were always remedied by a good night's sleep. 
"God's mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." seemed to ring true for me pretty much all of the time - even if I rarely managed to attend to quite how fortunate I was that this was my lived experience. I don't mean that I was always blissfully happy - but I was, and am, content. My job and my calling bring me joy, and I have an amazing family whom I love beyond measure, and a wonderful collection of friends with whom to laugh, cry and wonder. Honestly, I ought to be content, and at peace with my world!

Only - we are now seven weeks (or is it eight? maybe nine? time seems to have lost its meaning) into lock-down, and I, an extrovert, albeit a shy one, have not touched another human being since mid March. The hugs that I gave my family on our last outings together have had to last me rather longer than I'm accustomed to. Plans for spending Easter together, for launching my sabbatical with fish and chips and prosecco have, like that much anticipated sabbatical, long since gone the way of all flesh, and what had looked in January like a year to celebrate has been changed into a season to endure.

And the worst thing is - it's open-ended.

We have no idea when it will end so I can't comfort myself with "only four more weeks and we can be together", or even the hollow confidence of "It'll all be over by Christmas".
We just don't know.
Even if, in some madcap universe, the lock-down were lifted completely tomorrow, we all know enough of the ways of the virus to recognise that this would not mean that the world was safe again so we would be torn between longing to see those we love and fear that in doing so we might be risking their health and our own. Day by day, we feel that we are under threat, confronting the reality of our own mortality in ways that we have not had to in my lifetime, and that is deeply unsettling.

And all of this has made me realise how very conditional mental health is, how contingent on the prevailing environment. 
When my external points of reference are in the right place, it's easy to manage day by day, to ride the waves of even the more challenging situations at work, specially if there is something to look forward to.
Right now, though, there really isn't.
We dare not make plans - because that simply opens the way for more disappointment and frustration.
Even the prospect of returning to the Cathedral for worship is horribly clouded by the realisation that we probably won't be able to sing...
My children are 80 miles away in different directions so I can't hope to form a "bubble" with one of their households.
All I can do is sit it out - and sometimes that's fine, and I feel calm and able to look for signs of God's presence, signs of hope in the moment.
But not always.
Not by any means!

It all came to a head for me ten days ago, as we negotiated the complex jollity of the VE Day commemoration, and I began to realise that celebration felt like a preposterous concept. The days were running into one another, each day vanishing at an alarming speed but each week a stretch of formless grey that seemed set to last forever. I was not uniformly miserable, indeed I was finding tremendous joy in small things - in time in the garden, and birdsong in the city, in the sheer delight my dogs take in my presence at home every day, in music and poetry, in the sight of little hearts and thumbs floating gently up the screen as I lead live-streamed worship - each one a sign that despite lock-down I remain connected with a web of wonderful people joining me in praise and prayer...Yes, the moments were fine - it was the overall landscape that seemed so bleak.
When I caught myself quoting Hamlet
 "How weary, flat, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" it was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.
"I think that's what depression feels like" I thought.
"Might that be where I'm heading? Sliding downhill into the slough of despond? Gripped by accedie?" (a state of spiritual listlessness whose dangers have been recognised for centuries)

I named to myself what was going on, and for extra accountability, (and because I'm an extrovert, so why waste a good crisis?!) I named it on twitter. 
And somehow, even the act of naming, of saying "I'm not sure I'm coping very well" made all the difference.
In taking that tiniest smidgeon of control, I suddenly realised that I still had agency...that though I couldn't do everything I longed to, there were nonetheless decisions that were mine to make that would actually make many things easier, that while this was not the way I had expected to spend my time this year, nonetheless the fact that I am here to spend it at all remains a gift which I am free to enjoy.

So, I'm trying to work round that sense of contingency on external elements...but also to cut myself some slack when those elements aren't in place. 
Heavens to Betsy, this is a global pandemic! Something that hasn't hit humanity for over a century...It's a collective trauma in which nobody is going to feel utterly comfortable and secure. Emotional resources will be spread a bit thin, and perhaps the best we can hope for in human terms is that we can operate like those weather houses where one figure emerges on sunny days and another on dull ones, so that within our networks there's always someone in a better place to offer smiles and suggest recipes for banana bread when we're having a grey day.

Mental health is as much part of our overall makeup as the state of our bodies, and our experiences of frailty here are as valid and blame free as a broken leg, a tendency to migraine or any other physical challenge we might need to negotiate on our way through life. While past generation were dangerously inclined to see any trace of vulnerability in our psyches as a sign of moral weakness, we know better now.
The relationship between body mind and spirit is unutterably complex but the resounding message of this season for me is that we need to learn to be kinder - to others, of course, but also to ourselves.

That feels like a reasonable goal for this Mental Health Awareness Week. 
What do you think?
I know it would make God smile too.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon in lockdown Easter 5 for Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if you’ve turned to any box-sets for comfort and consolation during these days of Lockdown. Beset with unreliable internet at the Canonry, I’ve been enjoying a happy reunion with Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey on DVD – but more than anything else I’ve immersed myself in the life and times of the fictional President Jed Bartlett and his team in the West Wing.
Bartlett’s signature catch-phrase is “What’s next...” - and I think part of the appeal of the series for me is the way he models the kind of compassionate leadership I long for – so that I feel that whatever IS next, he will power on towards it, making mostly good choices. His confidence in tomorrow is infectious and reassuring…

Whatever you may feel about current government, not even their most ardent fans could claim that we are currently able to look forward with that sort of certainty. Right now the question “What’s next?” would sound more as an existential cry of despair than an eager response to fresh challenges...We have no idea what’s round the corner. Even as we begin to imagine the gradual easing of lock-down, we are very aware that the world to which we will return little by little will not be the same one we left back in March. For some of us, this season has been a helpful exercise in perspective. Stepping back from some of the frenetic busyness that has been part of life for many in the 21st century West has enabled us to reflect on what actually matters most and I have been involved in many many conversations of which the gist is “I do hope we DONT just “get back to normal” “. There’s a widespread recognition that life needed some sort of “reset button” and while this is  not for a moment a route to reset that anyone would ever have chosen, nonetheless there are good and important things to learn from our experience

But still and all, this is a difficult season.
We do not know where we are going so how can we know the way?
There goes my good friend Thomas, once again daring to express the uncertainties that are often part of the journey of faith.
And this time it’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Jesus talks about going ahead to get things ready for us in his father’s house -and then returning to take us there...but we’re not really clear where “there” might be. It doesn’t sound as if he’s planning a trip to Nazareth and inviting his friends to follow…
It’s a bit too easy for us to spiritualise this passage (and not this passage alone) and to downplay the very real confusion that it inspires in those who meet it for the first time. It’s often chosen for funerals – that sense of a real home ahead offering huge comfort to anyone who is mourning someone dear to them – but it’s not an easy read if you look at it closely. Even that promise to “take you to myself” can encourage a view of a God who is capricious, plucking individuals out of life just because he can...I’ve met far too many people who have lost any sense that God is on their side as a result of those words and I’m sure that in the months ahead we will have to engage with the grief stricken anger of those who feel that God CHOSE to allow their dear ones to die in the pandemic.
And if that’s not problem enough, what are we to do we do with those apparently exclusive words
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except by me”?

If  you and I have met, you may not be surprised to hear that I do NOT believe that this verse justifies a view of salvation that divides humanity into saved and  lost. I don’t read here the assertion that everyone has to have made a conscious personal decision to follow Christ in order to be welcome at the heavenly banquet. I know that this verse is often used to justify a belief that only card-carrying Christians will finally reach home in safety...but I cannot embrace that vision of Jesus as door-keeper, turning away all those whose faces don’t fit.
Nonetheless I am convinced that Jesus IS the Way, and in describing himself thus he confirms that the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday have opened a route for each of us to be whole and happy with God.
More, the model of self-giving, unconditional love which is revealed there is the way to which each of us must aspire….

This season has seen us stripping away so much that just doesn’t matter so that those things that are deeply true, deeply real, are thrown into sharp relief.
Surely this truth stands Head and shoulders above them all: that we are made to live in loving relationship with one another and with God...and that Jesus both models  and enables this.
To grasp that changes everything.

While I try to avoid cliches in my preaching, this gospel makes it practically compulsory to reflect on life as a journey...But notice that even here Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly where we are going. He says there’s room for everyone – an endless series of extensions surrounding the father’s house (a model that I was fascinated to see made real in  the ruins of 1st century  Capernaum)...but he doesn’t tell us much about the landscape or what we can expect to be doing with our time.
He does, though, make it clear how we’re going to get there.

If you’ve been finding it hard to love anyone very much in the frustrations of the current season...if you’ve decided you don’t much like, still less love, yourself, and heaven help your neighbour ...then be thankful that Jesus has cleared the path for us.
Listen, he says, I am the way. Let me hold your hand and take as I your personal relationships, in your political culture, as you respond to those whom might otherwise fear or dislike. Live my way. Seek to love and love and love again – no matter what it costs.

What's next?
I have absolutely no idea...except that there will be love.
Love as we journey, and love as we arrive.
Love lavished on us by the one who is ALL love…
So, do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God. Believe in Jesus.
All shall be well.

A Journal from the Plague Year - Where it's at Part 2

DISCLAIMER These are my very personal ramblings...I need to think aloud to have any sense of what I actually feel so may not be totally coherent, am almost certainly NOT totally rational and would in no way set up my opinions, when I reach them, as in any way the last word....

So - having written in my last post about how it felt to discover I'd made a "church" in my dining room, and how that space is now sacred in a completely new and unexpected way, towards the end of last week the official C of E guidance changed, such that clergy could, if it felt appropriate, return to live streaming from their church buildings. There has been so much vitriol expended on clergy twitter in particular around the varying understandings of ministry of those who felt hugely disabled in losing access to their buildings (to the extent of defying episcopal instructions to vacate them) and those who embraced the new world of domestic liturgy, inviting anyone who happened upon their streaming into house and home...and I didn't think I had strong feelings either way. 

When our buildings closed as lockdown began I understood and shared the grief articulated by my historian son about the loss of the unbroken thread of prayer that had wound through our ancient buildings for centuries. I had loved that final week of opening the building for private prayer and standing in the midst each hour to offer prayer for the diocese and beyond as we headed into the crisis, not knowing who or how we might emerge...but already even before the Prime Minister announced lockdown that Monday night it seemed clear that something had changed, that what I had felt privileged to offer the week before was no longer appropriate. There are seasons in this time of trauma, whose nature we may not even grasp til they are behind us...but for me the role of the cathedral as an icon of faith, a focus of vicarious prayer in the best sense of the word, had shifted. Before the announcement came, I was already clear that I didn't want to continue with that model.

Then we found ourselves in lockdown, praying from home as the only option available - and after the gentle amusement of the early days, the moments when FB filters threatened to leave us all presiding in gangster hats and dark glasses or when dogs expressed their loud enthusiasm for the unexpected presence of their humans in the middle of the day, we settled into a new routine. We knew our spaces and inhabited them prayerfully and learned to cherish God's presence there in our little understand the fragility of the incarnation in a new stretch out a hand in the night and expect to find it held. Because we were live streaming worship, it often went comically wrong..sometimes the techi failures felt as if they were interrupting God but more often, for me at least, they underlined the utter impossibility of offering anything but the overwhelming evidence of those cracks in everything through which the light gets in...and it was all unquestionably REAL. This was God's people doing their utmost to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, and for all the clunky changes of key and periodic husky voices, the music was alive and flowed through my soul.

However, after a particularly disastrous session last Sunday we had already begun to discuss recording worship. The initial thought had been that we would at least do that together...we would record ourselves worshipping in our different places at the same time...but because we were doing this in advance there was the opportunity to address those techi woes that seemed bound to beset us. I could imagine that working....but before we could follow through on our plans, the bishops spoke...and our bishop in particular was very keen to see the cathedral used once more. We entered a new era - in which I found myself delivering a sermon to the long-suffering Precentor alone, as he recorded my offering on zoom...this was DREADFUL. I felt deeply embarrassed by the whole process. Though I prayed as I always do before I started, it felt completely different, alien, uncomforable.
...We weren't exploring and listening for the Spirit together. Somehow the fact that it was being recorded seemed to bring with it a spurious claim to authority which I could not espouse...I spoke fast and the whole thing felt wretched (though I didn't and don't hate the content)

Then this morning I joined with the online congregation to view the recorded service - and have rarely felt more isolated or cut off. For me,the return of the Dean and his wife to the building, for all the beauty of their liturgical offering, prayed with grace and integrity, completely failed to engage me. I love our building dearly but it is a space designed to bring people together and today the fact that they were there alone (and rightly so - God forbid that in returning to our sacred spaces we should endanger others) simply emphasised a sense of priestly exclusion. The empty choir stalls behind them positively shouted that nothing, NOTHING about this was as it should be. Cathedrals are strange beasts - even for those of us who love them and have been called to serve God and God's people there - but to see the two of them alone in that building designed for thousands felt more like a historical re-enactment of the kind you meet in "living history" museums. It emphasised the dispersal of God's people as nothing had done before and seemed to emphasise the huge gulf between where we have been before and where most people are now. Cathedral worship needs music and crowds and splendour ....Sitting at my lap-top at the kitchen table I needed intimacy and consolation. 

Can I stress, this was not about the fact that I wasn't actively involved as President or Deacon, nor about the way that J & R worshipped. They lead worship really beautifully together and have often brought me to a place of deep engagement with God.
Equally, I have watched my colleagues preside daily from their homes and felt connected with them and with God in the moment - have found it easy and natural to make an act of "spiritual Communion" - and rejoiced that the Eucharist is in no way dependent on being together in one place. 

I understand that I may be in a minority of one, but it seems to me that there is something different going on here - something that smacks of clericalism (we are allowed in while you are not)...of anxiety that if people get too used to finding God at home they may never go back to church buildings, specially if those buildings no longer offer some of the experiences of music and ritual that we have valued in the past....and perhaps there's something about perfectionism too. It's much easier to aspire to that if you are offering a becomes a performance to be practised until it is as you feel it ought to be. 

A long time ago, a Bishop's Selector pushed me about a perfectionist streak she had thought I might be in thrall to. I was so much younger - and had an elevated idea of what I might offer, what the Church could offer...and talked passionately about the fact that if God had given us a garden full of roses, it was plain rude to simply offer a fistful of dandelions and wilting daisies - but that if those were all we had, then of course God would be delighted. I think right now the Church is in a place where fistfuls of daisies and cowparsley are a more honest expression of our common life and identity...and I shall go out and gather some to place in a jam-jar on the dining room table. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: Where it's at Part 1

And so the "phoney war" came to an end.
From opposite ends of our huge altar the Dean and I offered the Eucharist livestreamed on Mothering Sunday - the Mother Church of the diocese striving to continue to feed her children scattered in diaspora - and then there was just one more day of opening before lock-down was introduced.
I left the Cathedral to take a short, simple funeral for a long-standing member of the congregation whose death had nothing to do with covid 19 - but whose service was the first limited by the constraints of social distancing and the need to keep things moving because already demand for slots at the crem was beginning to grow...
With no particular thought, I added a few extra things to my bag. I wouldn't go back to my desk that afternoon...and I had a feeling that it might be a while before I was there again. I had no idea, though, quite how long...

That night the Prime Minister announced lockdown, the building was closed and we moved into a new phase of this extraordinary season. Now it was "home alone" for me and the dogs and I was so incredibly thankful for the temporary permission given by our bishops to preside alone...We continued our newly formed practice of offering Morning Prayer with Communion each day at 9.15 and began to see new communities forming around that service, as friends and congregation members and unknown visitors stumbled across us on Facebook and a little flight of hearts and thumbs up travelled up our screens. Libby and Willow began to experiment with canine contributions to worship, while Figaro did all that he could to sabotage it by leaping onto the tripod and ensuring that the phone was never quite straight...
To my surprise, I began to value this experience tremendously. It was indeed vicarious worship - but with more sense of a congregation present than sometimes when they are sitting in the far distant back rows of the nave...The regular need to stop and pray gave structure to days that might otherwise have slipped into free fall...And I loved that I was now in touch with people who had been part of my journey at many different stages - that for this season, we were worshipping together. I never once as I presided at Communion felt even notionally alone.

I'd created a worship space in the dining room. The table was a good height and size. The mantelpiece was already home to many icons and I loved that I could look out the window and see down the road - my neighbours homes - people I didn't know well, but with whom I was newly connected in our shared experience of lockdown and whom I could, as I broke bread and drank wine, bring in prayer into the circle of God's love. It worked well as a space...but what changed it for me was the experience of UNmaking it on Maundy Thursday. We had worshipped together each evening through Holy Week, - with my dear friend Charlotte from our beautiful neighbour church, St Clare's at the Cathedral delivering the sort of addresses that were like lights placed thoughtfully to transform the darkest corners. We were in a definite rhythm of prayer and it felt good - even if it wasn't the way we usually spent Holy Week.
On Thursday, though, we were beset by technical woes. The Deanery internet is no more reliable than mine here and after a couple of attempts it became very obvious that we would not manage to livestream a zoom service that included other voices...The decision was made that the Dean would livestream to Facebook, Charlotte's pre-recorded address would be stitched in afterwards -...and so, for the first time in ordained life, I found myself with no active role in worship on Maundy Thursday - and feeling pretty desperate about it. 
Enter two rather wonderful friends - both priests - who picked up my online wails of distress and offered to join me if I offered something online myself.
So that's what I did. And God was there and it was very very beautiful.

But it was what happened at the end that made this a watershed moment for me. 
After we had read the Gospel of the Watch I stripped the altar, extinguished all my candles, took down each icon, removed everything that spoke of "church" and left it heaped to one side. I listened to Psalm 22 to the Wesley chant, as I do every year and as I unmade church that evening in the gathering dusk, that very ordinary dining room in my suburban semi became non-negotiably holy ground, as much church as anywhere I've been.

As I left the room in darkness at the end of the Watch, I did so on tiptoe - not wanting to disturb the deep layers of God's presence that I was suddenly and wonderfully aware of.
And all through Good Friday and Holy Saturday I passed the dining room door reverently, removing my shoes, knowing that this was ground.

In all the increasingly fraught and fevered debates about whether or not clergy should be allowed into their buildings to live stream from there, I've held on to that overwhelming sense of God's presence in my dining room. I couldn't ask for more than that...and the room has been changed forever by this season so that whatever comes next, I've received an unexpected but unmissable gift.

It can't "compete" with the layers of deep prayer that have shaped our ancient buildings, with their patina of prayer and worship offered and received, but it was all that I needed - a place where God's presence was undeniable, where I knew, and know, God was as inextricably connected in those small things which hint at the transcendent day by day.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: Keeping the Hours

So - countdown continued through the weeks of Lent.
The Cathedral closed for public worship but our great West Screens were opened wide, our chairs spaced out to ensure social distancing and we gladly welcomed in those who wanted to come and sit and grieve or hope or pray.
We had agreed to offer prayers on the hour - and this soon began to feel like the most significant ministry that I had offered since I arrived here, a moment when the Cathedral came into its own as the praying heart of our city.
There was an overwhelming sense that those who came in brought with them all the concerns of  wider society, and that as we prayed for all whose lives were overshadowed by the pandemic, for the sick and the scared, for those offering care and those researching cure, we were articulating something that needed to be named and offered again and again.
While there were a smattering of familiar faces who found their way in day by day, nearly all  those who prayed with me were not regular worshippers with us, or, it transpired, anywhere else in the city.
"This seemed like the right place to be" said one lady.
"Your words helped me feel we might not go off the rails" said another.
Not my words at all, actually.
I mostly read a psalm or two.
 "Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another"
"God is our strength and refuge, a very present help in time of trouble"
I edged those dear familiar words around with faltering links of my own,
I told those present that they had been a precious stepping stone for others before us, negotiating their way through times as uncertain and challenging as those we were facing ourselves.
I told the story of the Cathedral to all who came, with the reminder that for Provost Howard and his congregation in 1940 the morning after the blitz must have been heavy with grief and with dread. 
No sense for them then of the new future, quite unlike the past, which was waiting out of sight around the corner.
I talked about the difference between faith and confidence...That at the moment confidence is hard to find but that faith is the underlying motif that has held us steady through generations..suggested we might pray that Lord's prayer together (finding myself automatically using the traditional form of words, as I always do at funerals, although the Cathedral generally opts for modern language), and, hour after hour, prayed a blessing - often this one.
"May the love of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you
May he guide you through this wilderness, protect you from life's storms,
May he bring you back rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you,
May he bring you back rejoicing once again within these doors".

At home that first night, I picked up a novel - a recent acquisition from the charity shop - and a bookmark fell out.
On it, those self-same words...
It felt, by some mad and magical thinking, to be an endorsement of my prayers - maybe even a promise that we would regather in this space "after the dreaful flood was past".

Of course life is always uncertain and precarious. 
The covid19 pandemic has simply forced we, who thought we had somehow insulated ourselves from the ills that flesh is heir to, to confront our assured mortality. 
In the face of that, the instinct to pray, and to entrust ourselves and all whom we love to One who has never deserted fickle humanity, is alive and well as it has not been in my lifetime.
Stepping into that stream of prayer was a privilege I will not quickly forget.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: where two or three....???

About 15 years ago, when I was setting off in my first incumbency, I was sent on a training day about change. I can’t remember much of the content, except that after lunch we were asked to imagine our parish in the grip of some huge, possibly threatening, change – and then DRAW a model of our likely response.
I can’t draw. Absolutely rubbish…Always have been. Always will be. So that might have constrained my reaction a little, but I don’t think so. I drew a sideways rectangle, and place a cross, and an outline chalice on it…Unleashing my inner Father Ted I announced
“When in any doubt, it’s always the right thing to do to say Mass”.
So when this crisis began, it’s not surprising that this was my first response.
I work at Coventry Cathedral, where we celebrate the Eucharist at least 5 days a week, and as we began to realise that a pandemic was about to engulf us, I suggested to my colleagues that we really ought to be offering a daily celebration. Cathedrals take a while to change direction – the QE2 is lithe and nimble in comparison – so though everyone agreed, this didn’t actually start until the day after Lent 3 and our last act of public worship. We always have a combined service of Morning Prayer with Communion first thing on Mondays – so, knowing that we would open for private prayer at 10.00, we arranged to live stream our usual offering, despite the vagaries of the cathedral wifi. That first day, I think the Dean presided and I deaconed – and to our surprise a considerable number of people joined us online, from our regular worshipping community, from the wider diocese, and from the international movement of reconciliation that is our Community of the Cross of Nails. Despite ourselves, we had begun to create a Eucharistic community based on virtual presence – and that community has grown exponentially over the weeks that followed.
Of course at that point, it didn’t feel as if we were doing anything very different from our norm. Though it was pointed out that the Dean and I should really not be in the same space at the same time for risk of infection (this was the week before lockdown, remember), there was a verger present to manage the recording, though they didn’t always choose to receive…But it didn’t feel unlike any midweek Mass….Coventry is not one of those cathedrals where people queue to get a seat for daily worship…we are often 2 or 3….
As we approached lockdown, I began to panic. How would I manage if I couldn’t celebrate the Eucharist for an indefinite period? It was OK for my colleagues, who live with other people, but my family are scattered so I imagined that when the inevitable happened, I’d be stuck, deprived of something that is absolutely at the heart of my faith and my identity. I began to remember the times when I had celebrated the Eucharist at death beds, offered bread and wine to family members while the dying, unable even to manage a sip of wine on a silver spoon, were invited to make an act of spiritual communion. There was absolutely no doubt that Christ was present. No doubt that his love and life filled each one of us on that holy ground…
Was this the way forward?
Then, of course, the bishops made their pronouncement – that priests could celebrate alone on behalf of their communities…And we went into lockdown…but that pattern of livestreamed Morning Prayer with Communion continued and numbers grew day by day by day. I asked how it felt to watch me receiving Christ in bread and wine – was it something that increased the pain of difficult days, rubbed the noses of the faithful in the sad reality that I couldn’t currently give THEM the sacrament…
Did it feel as if I was eating my fill while the onlookers were left hungry? 
Basically, would they rather we stopped? 
The answer to that there was a resounding NO.

You are our priest. We want you to do the things for which you were ordained. We know you are doing this for us- and we receive that as a gift…said one who emailed…while another spoke of the comfort of knowing that whatever else was going on, however dark and scary the world had become, there was stability and comfort here. A priest who comes to me for spiritual direction was wrestling with the issues. She comes from a less sacramental tradition than mine, and I think she was wondering whether to simply offer a service of the word right the way through til everyone could gather again…Her reasoning was convincing, her longing to offer the best she could to her people shiningly obvious, and my style of "direction" very rarely wanders down truly directive paths. So I was rather startled as
I heard myself say to her “Do you honestly think that it would be better for the world if nobody anywhere celebrated the Eucharist until this is over?” – for that, surely, would be the logical conclusion, and I knew with all that was in me that for me that was a completely unthinkable situation.
"Blessed be God by whose grace creation is renewed, by whose love heaven is opened, by whose mercy we offer this sacrifice of praise" runs one of the possible prayers over the gifts in the Anglican liturgy....and it seems to me that as we celebrate the Eucharist, Love opens that window onto heaven again and again and again.

The part of the ordinal that I cling to when I am feeling least effective in ministry is the command “You are to tell the story of God’s love”.
For me, that story is rooted and grounded above all in the Eucharist. When I celebrate I bring that love story into our present. I take all the pain and fear and grief of the world as part of the offertory, and as always God touches them and transforms them, giving back God’s life in return. The bread and wine we receive embodies that – and even to watch a colleague consuming them in his home across the city makes that gift fresh real and alive for me.
That’s just where I am. It's not the only answer. Each priest, each congregation, is finding their own way through uncharted waters, and we are all doing our best to keep on telling that story of Love.
For me, it feels as if the Cathedral has grown into herself during this season so that we are actually doing what a mother-church should do. That daily act is bringing people together around a virtual altar and empowering us to live as the Body of Christ in extraordinary times

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: the phony war

By way of an introduction.
Ever since Lockdown started, I've wondered why I wasn't writing.
I love writing. 
I've no particular agenda, just the joy of the words, so I had imagined that in the new regime I'd delight in filling my days with word upon word upon word. 
I even chose a notebook from my stash to contain my ramblings...

Four weeks on - NOTHING!

I think perhaps at first my brain was too overloaded with emotions to even begin to try and distil them into words...but all the same, this is an extraordinary time, and I am conscious that there is so much being learned as we go through it together. So, I'm writing now, not because I feel I have anything significant to share but really because I want to capture the moment and try to make sense of it all for myself. 
If you feel like reading, that's great...but I'm fine if nobody ever does! 
These are my thoughts, memories, impressions...
Perhaps I'll be able to look back in a decade and notice significant changes  emerging from this experience. 
Perhaps I'll use it in "do you remember?" conversations with Ellie (who will then, unbelievably, be entering her teens).
Perhaps I won't be here, but at least I'll try and learn while I can.

Wars and rumours of wars
2020 was going to be such FUN. MY year!
I had a sabbatical booked, - the first in 16 years of ordained ministry - a moderately significant birthday to celebrate, and some wonderful plans as to how I might manage both.
I had a delightful new grandson to engage with and a strong and happy relationship with his older sister to continue: there's alot to be said for being the available adult in a household where a new baby has done just a wee bit of supplanting...
I didn't plan any leave after Christmas - really, once we hit spring my sabbatical would be only days away - though thankfully I did continue to make the most of the here and now opportunities, heading down to London to the theatre with some parts of the family, and continuing my regular Friday jaunts to Cambridge to cuddle those grand-babies too.
That's something I'm incredibly thankful for.

It was in January that we began to hear more about a new virus that was hitting China hard. One of my oldest friends has a son teaching English there, and I was concerned for him - and for her as a worried and distant mum - but beyond that it didn't seem likely to impinge. Chinese New Year arrived and because I was busy I didn't indulge in my habitual Chinese supper from the take-away up the road: I learned later that already they were suffering as customers began to stay away, as if you might catch the new virus simply by interacting with anyone of Asian descent. Feeling superior, I dismissed this attitude as ridiculous - and anyway, that virus was still far away...we were an wasn't going to affect us.

Except that slowly, almost imperceptibly, it did.
Overnight it seemed that Italy had become a "plague zone". Just the north at first. I could still feel envious of friends heading to Venice for Carnival - until they were sent summarily home. Then there was news of the whole country going into lock-down., just as UK half-term hit, with lots of families heading to Italy to ski. Suddenly this didn't seem a far-away unreal disease. It was getting closer. I found myself hating the distance between Coventry and Cambridge, would wake up with my face damp with tears at the idea that I might be separated from those I loved most - either by a country in lockdown or, most fearfully, by death. I had not really known my own grandparents, my parents had died while I was still in my teens, and so the whole experience of becoming a grandmother was the most amazing and joyful discovery of new love as overwhelming as that which had flooded my world when my children were born. I wanted (and want) so desperately to be part of their lives - to see them grow up and watch their story unfold...Since Ellie was born I had felt so very sorry for my own parents, who had missed this total delight. 
To realise that there was a significant risk that I too might leave the little ones early was more than I felt able to bear....
Those were tricky days to navigate. 

We began to have planning meetings at the Cathedral, imagining how it might be if we had to close the offices, how we could best work from home, naively rejoicing that our ruins would allow us a space to gather even if it was felt unsafe to continue to worship inside.

Then we hit March. The shops began to empty as people recognised the probability of being confined to their homes for a while. Loo roll, pasta and tinned tomatoes found themselves popular as never before. Because I'd spent much of last year gently preparing for a No Deal Brexit I found myself embarrassingly well-off for many started giving things away. No matter how much I might sometimes wish things were otherwise, my adult children all have lives, jobs and homes a good 80 miles away so the supplies designed to feed a family really weren't going to come in handy.

News bulletins became more pessimistic day by day. 
We realised we were not looking at "ifs" but "whens". 
For some weeks we had suggested that people might prefer not to share the Peace with a handshake, that if they felt vulnerable they should avoid the common cup at Communion. 
This advice did not land well!
Our congregation is mostly retired, with experience of the great crises of yesteryear, and for some time they were resolute in their refusal to take precautions. The prevailing attitude seemed to be something along the lines of
"I've come through worse than this...and life is for living. I'd rather die now, having spent time seeing my friends and fully engaging with life than simply exist within my four walls..."
It was not until the narrative changed to "Protect Others. Protect the NHS" that they became compliant - but by the Third Sunday of Lent things felt different..
We were told that only the President should receive the wine. 
Our planned guest preacher sent a recorded sermon instead of coming in person - and some cathedral stalwarts decided to stay at home.
I was conscious of a huge weight of significance as I placed the Sacrament in hand after hand as the choir sang - so very beautifully that it seemed a distillation of all I love most about cathedral worship.
With each familiar face, each pair of hands, I found myself half engaged with an inner dialogue, composed of thoughts like these:
I may not be able to feed you for a time. 
You are old, not in the best of health. 
Will you be here when we gather once more?
Do you know how much you matter? How much you are loved?
But of course, "all" I actually said was "The Body of Christ keep YOU in eternal life".
As always, that was enough.

After the service, our usual coffee was cancelled. Instead I begged people to leave their contact details so that, once we were separated, we could keep in touch. 
"What do you mean, if we are separated?" asked R, robust and indignant as he must surely have been throughout his 8 decades...
Probably this was just as well.
If we had really REALLY grasped how life was about to change, there might have been more tears than could easily be contained in one Sunday morning.
As it was, I chatted and prayed with a few people, exchanged glances with Christ on the Sutherland tapestry - who looked as weary but loving as usual - and headed downstairs.
Public worship in that space was over for the moment.