I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual recently. Certainly not Churchy spiritual. During lockdown Zoom was a necessary stop gap and a bit of a novelty i.e.we didn’t have to get up and get out of the house but the impact of it on me was pretty muted. The closure of churches at a time of national crisis was I believe a massive failure of Church leadership.
When I first became a Christian in my early thirties one of the phrases I often heard when weighing up what to do in any situation was ‘what would Jesus do?’ Well what would Jesus have done in 2020/21? Not served up Holy Communion from his kitchen, of that I am pretty sure. Jesus walked among lepers and the diseased of the mind and of the body and of the spirit. He had no fear. Yet our Church enjoined our government and preached fear into its body’s heart.
I have been one of those fairly vocal lockdown sceptics since May 2020, when I felt the logic for them fell apart. I and many others forecast the massive human cost that locking people down in such an authoritarian way would entail. Apart from a sacred bond of democracy being broken, economic disaster, lost businesses, loneliness, depression, undiagnosed cancers, suicides, substance abuse and domestic abuse, child abuse were all collateral damage – it didn’t take much imagination to see this downside. I felt the essence of the Christian faith, which is unworldly had got buried beneath layers of earthly rules and guidance. There was no space for debate, no place even for a more spiritual take on the crisis, no challenge to the government on the impact of their policies. Clergy like Giles Fraser who have written critically of the Church’s over-compliance with government guidelines, have kept my faith in the Church going… it’s not just me that sees an increasingly watered down and secular Christianity ..
Eighteen months on from the initial lockdown I went to a concert held in our local church on Saturday night. This was during our ‘no restrictions’ period and there were three hundred people there, mostly unmasked. The following morning was Harvest festival and I attended the same church only to have to follow signs, wear a mask, sanitiser my hands and write down my name and phone number. There were no government decreed restrictions yet this church imposed its own. There were 26 people in church that morning, social distanced and masked. We were back to church in person yes but like this? Not for me. I hate masks. I find them dehumanising and psychologically distancing which makes real connection with people and therefore empathy pretty much impossible. Constant mask wearing is akin to treating each person as if they are diseased. If we are all hugger mugger on a train fair enough but twenty six people in a very large airy freezing cold church… come on!
The following month our Remembrance Sunday service was shortened to fifteen minutes and moved outside for our ‘safety’. At the end the vicar told us we had been invited to go for coffee and biscuits at the British Legion Club across the road which is probably one tenth of the size of the church so it was very crowded and we all mixed happily without masks.
It kind of summed up the Church of England for me and had I not been a Christian nothing of the Church’s response during the pandemic would have converted me to being one.
However as Christians know, God works in mysterious ways. Having rather abandoned church going for the time being, I did go a couple of weeks ago to my husband’s goddaughter’s confirmation. I had low expectations until I realised who was taking the service-a local bishop for whom I had a lot of time. We were wearing masks, but even the local vicar moaned about it. This time we were in Plan B. This Bishop always spoke well… his sermons are like shared faith boosting confessions and personal stories which he relates to the teaching. The service was moving in itself, seven wonderful girls, aged between 12 and 15, had each committed to following a life in Christ. They had studied their classes using what sounds like an amazing course based on film and their proud friends and godparents could see that their commitment was heartfelt.
In an increasingly secular culture this really was cause for celebration and the wonderful bishop made sure it was. He made what can sometimes be a conventional run of the mill ritual into an amazing event. These girls were going on the greatest adventure of their life, and he reminded us that it was our adventure as well. We too were called by God. We were caught up in his enthusiasm and the service and the hour and a half shot by. This was the living water we thirst for that Jesus promises the woman at the well. The Bishop reread one of Bible passages of the service and told us how it was particularly special to him as it was this verse that made him turn to Christianity when he was a troubled sixteen year old.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.” Isaiah 43 1-2
It was a reminder no, more like a homecoming.
My husband waited in the car and I returned to the church to speak to the Bishop as he left, outside so no masks. “Thank you”, I said, I really needed that.” He looked straight at me and smiled. “And so did I”.