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.