Churches Together in Berkswell and Balsall Common invited me to contribute to their Lent series, spiritual perspectives on the pandemic. As the timing coincided with the arrival of the Epstein Stories in Stone exhibition at the Cathedral the experience of wrestling for a blessing gained an extra dimension. Here, more or less, is what I said.
I prepared these thoughts as we were invited,, as a nation, to look back at two years of upheaval, challenge and loss, and in some ways I feel I've little right to be speaking at all.. Inevitably this is my personal perspective, and I'm acutely aware that though I lost a long awaited sabbatical,, and some exciting plans to celebrate a big birthday on safari with my children, as a family we suffered no covid bereavements,, no obviously life changing trauma. Nonetheless I know we are all different, and so, I imagine, is each of you, so my invitation this morning is to look for A Positive Result. Of course, in the topsy-turvey world of the pandemic, we have come to treat positives with some suspicion, and equally some of the things I've logged here may not be unadulterated good, but bear with me if you would.
It seems to me that there are unexpected blessings to be drawn from our individual and collective experience and I’d like to explore some of these and consider how we might incorporate what we have learned into life going forwards. Inspired by the Genesis account of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and by Epstein’s sculpture currently on loan to Coventry Cathedral, may I invite you to consider whether moments of grace and transformation might after all have been part of your experience, even if, like Jacob, we have all emerged from the encounter limping and dislocated.
So, how have you been, these past two years?
With our “National Day of Reflection” on Tuesday reminding us to look back I wonder how the landscape looks for you. We know that we have all been changed by the pandemic in ways it may take years to fully discover. We know, too, how the arrival of covid 19 revealed as absolute fraud our comfortable certainties, our dogged insistence that humanity commands the world and everything in it. We, who believed we were safely insulated against the ills that flesh is heir to, were abruptly forced to confront our own, inescapable mortality. Shocking but probably good for us, unwelcome but ultimately beneficial, as deep honesty can often be.
Because this experience has been nothing if not honest. Those chilling daily statistics were inescapable, even if, like me, you sometimes avoided R4 for days…so this exercise is not I think about avoiding hard truths but rather perhaps reframing them so that in years to come we can look at this period not just as a time of loss, but also a time of growth.
I’m privileged to work at Coventry Cathedral, and encountered some of the greatest losses and gains in my working life there. Early in March 2020, the unthinkable happened. Public worship, which had continued unbroken through centuries in times of war and pestilence, was suspended.
Like so many others, we were forbidden from carrying on our core business. Or were we? That second week in March was simply extraordinary, the great West Screens open wide to welcome a ceaseless tide of visitors coming in to be quiet, to cry, to light candles and to join with fervour in the hourly prayers I led, which felt, somehow, as if they might just be the most significant work I had done in ministry. 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...How at such moments confidence is hard to find but that faith is the underlying motif that has held us steady through generations, .invited them to pray the 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 blessing upon blessing upon blessing.
For me that week was full of anxiety and dread as I realised that I would be separated from those I loved most for weeks, even months, but was also an experience of profound wonder. It seemed that somehow we had rediscovered the faith of a bygone age, when people were more ready to admit their dependence on God, a time when the image of Cathedral as mother-church, sheltering storm tossed humanity, might be wholly appropriate. Perhaps, after all, there might be something we could do to make a difference in all this. Gradually, my own anxiety was subsumed in a sense of calling, stronger than ever…
Many years before 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 placed 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 it’s by no means surprising that this was my first response in this crisis.
"Let’s do the Eucharist more often. MUCH more often. Every day, in fact."
Cathedrals, though, take a while to change direction – the QE2 is lithe and nimble in comparison – so though everyone agreed this felt right, we 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. Even that very first day, a surprising 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 grew exponentially over the weeks that followed. That daily act brought people together around a virtual altar and empowered us to live as the Body of Christ in extraordinary times, as we worshipped daily with people from the wider diocese, entirely content with their own parish church, deeply and wisely allergic to the Coventry ring-road, but thankful to have their days punctuated by prayer…and we drew in the ALWAYS house-bound, who could never make the journey to worship with us, who have been excluded from communal worship for far too long. Online church has much lower thresholds than any physical building. If you’re anxious, you can just hover at the door. If you’re unwell, still in your pyjamas, - turn off the camera and join without anyone being any the wiser. When you’re ready to engage, you’re welcome – but meanwhile, just stay where you’re comfortable…That’s fine. Now it was "home alone" for me and my pets…my congregation represented by a number in one corner of my screen, and some comments below.
To my surprise, I began to value this experience tremendously, to find myself warmed and encouraged by the little tide of hearts and thumbs up that made their way across my phone screen.. 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 scattered far and wide 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….and 2 years on, some of us are still together so that the brief informal "Welcome to Sunday# I offered in the summer of 2020 as a transition for those not yet ready to go about again continues with its own distinct and faithful congregation
New worshipping communities are something that gladdens every bishop’s heart -but I’m not sure anyone had imagined it happening like this. Another gift. A church to engage with no matter what, no matter when…completely inclusive, its doors ever open
I think the Cathedral grew into herself during this season – which might seem bizarre, as of course unlike the local church, a Cathedral is uncompromisingly, above all a BUILDING – the place where the Bishop’s Cathedra is set….but now we were in diaspora….scattered to homes across the city …The building was locked and silent and yet…and yet…another learning point, another unexpected blessing – God with us!
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 forever was the experience of UNmaking it on Maundy Thursday. Week.
So to my next gift, a new understanding of place in worship.
Of course my dining room church couldn’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
When we closed the Cathedral doors in March there was such a strong sense of exile…I left the cathedral to take a funeral and as I said the words of committal that day, part of me was also laying to rest our old ways of being, our former practices of community and worship. Whatever lay ahead, it was clear that one chapter had ended. But of course, what emerged were new ways of being Church…of gathering for worship together though apart…of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
What was God up to, in this barren, stony landscape that we’d never expected to arrive in? It seemed, though, that we had no choice but to be there in the moment, regardless.
Easter approached and we agonised about how we might celebrate it “properly” away from our beloved buildings. My dining table was all very well but…it wasn’t really church, it wasn’t anyone’s spiritual home. But in Holy Week, things changed for me. At the end of an impromptu Maundy Thursday Eucharist, shared online with a couple of friends, we read the Gospel of the Watch and then 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. I left the room in darkness at the end of the Watch 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 holy ground. Surely, the Lord WAS in this place – and I knew it not. Extraordinary. The bottom of that heavenly ladder of Jacob’s dreams propped up in my dining room. God’s angels heading up and down from my house, that connection as lively and unbroken as ever
And, of course, what I found in my home is true of yours too.
That traffic from earth to heaven, from sheltered flats and noisy family kitchens, from care homes and hospital wards where weary staff draw breath and pray to escape a second wave of the pandemic. And from the shanty towns and refugee camps. A constant stream of messages, pleas and praises rising to God, an unbroken flow of love coming down A reminder that there is nowhere – NOWHERE – where God does not stand beside us and assure us “I am with you and I will keep you. I will not leave you”
"Surely the Lord is in this place." And this one. And this.
That traffic from heaven to earth is as constant as ever – its tides diminished neither by lockdown nor by the ebbing faith of humanity. Wherever you go – you are walking on holy ground. SUCH a powerful reminder A blessing hard won but worth struggling for.
If that all feels a bit too churchy (this is a LENT series, after all, so I’m not too apologetic) let’s think about the blessings wrested from other areas of life. Yes, the pandemic has reminded us more than any of us would ever have chosen that we are not in control, not the brave, self-reliant species we might wish to be. Home alone, I was confronted in a new way with my own vulnerability and the vulnerability of humanity. But it taught me, too, that I have so much that I need here in myself and in my life at home, that home is a place of contentment, even when it doesn't contain the people I love most, those whom I long to have always beside me.
And – do you remember those early days, when birdsong replaced for me the city hum, when the skies were empty of planes, when it felt as if the whole human race had let go of its stranglehold on the planet so that nature could breathe again?. Those weeks, for all the loss and grief, were so beautiful…and prompted me to consider the fact of my own mortality without fear, as I exulted in the wonders of that long and perfect spring, knowing that spring would continue, its wonders be cherished and celebrated long after I have ceased to be. That realisation was, and remains, oddly consoling. Somehow as we were less relentlessly presented with the strivings and struggles of human ambition, it seemed easier to accept that we are just passing through and that this is absolutely OK. We are to use our present moment, but to recognise that it IS only a moment, and this is just as it should be.
It was in that season, too, that I found my priorities had changed. The gentler tempo of those first weeks, when zoom meetings were the exception rather than the rule, when we were all learning how to be in the new order, persuaded me that I should no longer allow myself to work a 60 hour week, that while priesthood is who I am, the aspects of ministry that are more about what I DO are by no means the be-all and end-all.
I have grandchildren to cherish, music to sing, poetry to read…and I’m no longer willing to let the busy-ness of work push those aside. In 2020 We were all offered a re-set button in 2020…and it seems to me wisdom to allow the new order to shape our days going forward. Not, of course, that this is easy. We’ve all spent a lifetime buying into the relentless drive for progress, for more and better and better and more…Remember how many things were allegedly “World-beating” …even when they demonstrably weren’t. Evidence of an approach from which we were invited to step away, though it seems that we find that a struggle, that we are collectivelyintent on making up for lost time no matter what.
Which brings us to the present – and to the Stories in Stone which currently fill our cathedral. There were so many times when it seemed that all our hopes for this year, when the cathedral celebrates its diamond jubilee, would be lost – but incredibly, an exhibition we’ve taken 7 years to plan is happening right now and at its centre is Epstein’s great piece from Tate Modern “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”. It draws all eyes as you enter the building…two figures locked, in combat? In embrace? In an extraordinary mixture of both…
It’s obvious that Jacob is exhausted, that he would no longer be standing were he not in his opponent’s arms…So he is held up by the very arms with which he grapples…It’s an enthralling work – and so, of course, is the story from Genesis which it depicts. Jacob has been in exile and now he is heading home….with understandable caution, since at journey’s end he will meet the brother whom he last saw the day he cheated him of his birthright. Knowing that HE is responsible for the broken relationship...knowing that it is up to him to seek forgiveness and reconciliation...it is not perhaps surprising that he is suffering from insomnia. He has sent his family over the ford but stayed alone on the near side.
The text is quite clear about that. Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him til day break. You would think, wouldn’t you, that that one half or other of that sentence must be wrong. If Jacob is alone – there is nobody else there. If there is a wrestling partner – then Jacob is not alone. What are we to make of that? We can’t just imagine a virtual wrestling match...fightings and fears within, without… This is more than just the product of a guilty conscience and a healthy anxiety about confronting his own past. This is a real, physical struggle – one that marks Jacob for life. After my months alone this makes SUCH sense to me.I might have shut the door, hunkered down with my patient dogs and cats, but it turns out that I wasn’t alone either.
As is his wont, bidden or unbidden, God shows up. Of course, Jacob shouldn’t have been surprised...and perhaps he wasn’t. God had said he would be with him right through until he had accomplished all God’s plans for him. This journey towards reconciliation is surely part of God’s plan – but they’re not there yet. Jacob still has work to do… And he starts with honesty. The last time he sought a blessing it was from his father Isaac – a blessing based on a lie, as he claims his brother’s name, and his brother’s place in the family. Now he admits to being himself, Jacob...and asserts his continued need for a blessing. The process of reconciliation is going to cost him. He knows the truth of this – the truth of who he really is, when everything else has been stripped away...and now, beyond this – unlooked for – comes this experience of wrestling all night.
Wrestling with God. His experience comes to define the nation of his descendants. Israel means one who wrestles with God – and so this is a description of all the People of God throughout the ages. They, we (the “new Israel”), are those who hang on to God no matter what...who will not let go until we receive a blessing.
I don’t know how you’re feeling, but my experience of the pandemic has most definitely been one of wrestling, both for myself and for the Church I love. Wrestling with fear – that I’ll die too soon to see my beloved grandchildren grow, that my children’s jobs will disappear in the recession and that I’ll be powerless to help and support them... Wrestling With grief – that cherished plans have been obliterated, joyful celebrations cancelled, With anxiety that the Church as institution will be so badly damaged by the impact of the pandemic that it won’t actually be around for me to retire from. With doubt, - that the whole faith thing might be a wild delusion, leaving me a child crying in the night with but the language of the cry... Much of that wrestling was not deeply rational – but it certainly led to a good few disturbed nights and weary mornings, when I may not have been limping visibly – but there was a definite lack of spring in my step spiritually and emotionally, if not physically.
I wonder what you have been wrestling with through the past weeks and months?
I wonder if you’ve found that God was part of the struggle after all? Perhaps, like Jacob, you are haunted by the past. By a failure or disappointment that you cannot forget...Reconciliation means acknowledging that; calling ourselves by our true name, with all the baggage of our history, and then offering that baggage to God for healing and transformation. That’s a good night’s wrestling – and I think that discovering ourselves and our own inner resources, strengths, weaknesses, is another pandemic blessing.
Perhaps you’re wrestling with theology, with your understanding of God or of Scripture. Perhaps the faith you have relied on now feels like a boat that has sprung a leak...is not quite equal to your longing to make sense of our current predicament. Perhaps your struggle is with a threat of some kind: a real or imagined enemy, -the virus? Grief? Aging? Or a lost or broken relationship, an Esau in your life. In all of these wrestlings, the point is to hang on until the day dawns and the blessing comes. Do not let go. God IS there, your companion in the darkness...his arms holding you up, even if the struggle leaves you limping in pain. We know in Coventry, better than most, that to be reconciled – to ourselves, one another, to the reality of life on this beautiful, broken, transient planet – is a journey that involves pain and loss as well as hope and transformation. The wounds of history, collective and personal, are real and deep. Perhaps we cannot heal them ourselves – but we can limp on.
Will we claim our blessings? Already, 2020 feels a lifetime ago, and I’m anxious again – this time that we might, you and I, have already discarded some of the blessings that were so precious along the way. Like Jacob, and like almost everyone I know, I am very weary. I won’t be the same again. None of us will. But, amid all the deep and genuine loss, amid the frustration and longing to put the whole thing behind us and move forward, can I encourage you to reflect on the blessings you might have overlooked…to claim and hold onto them, even if the struggle to do so leaves you limping..