Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.
In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.
But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.
The lovely people of Timperley Parish might be fed up of hearing me use this phrase! It’s one I used early on in the pandemic, quoting Leo Varadker: to be together… we have to be prepared to stay apart”
Together; apart is a motif that has stayed with my preaching and reflections through this pandemic. It describes so much our scattered life – each of us within our various bubbles, but still networked together through friendship and prayer.
Back in March, as the church buildings were closed and our gathered, in-person worship ceased, as a church we found ourselves in a time of turmoil and disorientation. We found ourselves asking some very difficult questions about our identity and our practice – who were we, and how could we continue to be – without the means to meet regularly together for worship and friendship and to help one another out?
But amidst the turmoil, we mobilised. Networks of phone contact were set up, we all had a crash course in new technology, and we found new ways to interact. Through this time new friendships were made, many of us found new ways to help out our neighbours, and many people felt connected to the life of the parish in new ways and different ways. We shopped for one another, supplied medicines to doorsteps, and deepened friendships by waving through windows.
Seeing us operate as a Church in this new way brought me a deep sense of joy. It seemed as if, in all of our loss and in everything we were missing, we found new ways to BE the Church – and many of these new ways of operating seemed to me to say much about the radical, inclusive love of God for every person.
In effect, we were doing the tasks for which we have been called, it felt like we had found our purpose and our identity in this new way of being – and although none of this was new for some of us, for others of us it was new, and for all of us it meant going about it in new ways.
Meanwhile, the cogs of the Church of England have been turning, and in recent weeks I have seen an emerging, strengthening emphasis on the ministry of every person. It has been present for years, of course. But it is currently being heard and received in fresh ways. Perhaps a case of ecclesiology imitating life, perhaps an acceleration of what so many of us have fought so long for: an understanding of church that goes far beyond what we do when we gather for an hour on a Sunday morning.
Church is not about, and was never about, what we did for an hour on a Sunday morning. We’ve said this together often enough, and we’ve lived it out, in part. Being the Church is about being the church in every sphere of life: in gathered worship, in the home, and out in our workplaces and volunteer spaces, and in the shops and parks and everywhere else that we spend our time.
And perhaps the gift of this time is that we have had to redress something in our church life that has been off balance for so long. Where before March we placed so much energy and time into what happens inside our buildings on a Sunday morning, now we find ourselves living, as the Church, in the other spaces that we inhabit through the week. And that includes online spaces, as we interact, connect and pray with one another in new and different ways.
Social distancing won’t last forever. But when it passes, we will be all the poorer if the experience of these days does not change us radically and significantly. There will be no going back to normal. Because normal was, in part, incomplete. And we will still be incomplete, of course – but the Christian life is one of deepening in wholeness and growing in faith. We do not remain unchanged.
Together; apart. I am coming to see this motif not as one for a time of pandemic, but one for discipleship in a post-Covid world. It is not a new idea to state that our time together – in worship, fellowship, and prayer – resources our time apart. And yet we are being shaped profoundly as we come to see that our gathered model of church is so far from being the full image of the Church of God.
We are being formed for something new: something radical. And a first step has to be that when we talk about our church life, we don’t imagine what we do on a Sunday morning, but how we live in every other hour of the week.
This Covid season is teaching us, acutely and painfully, how to be the church – together apart. I have come to hope that we will find a way to continue in this, so that into the future our times together enrich our times apart. I have come to hope that in our times apart we know we are as much God’s agents in the world as in the hour we spend together for worship. I have come to pray that the “apart” will be seen as equal to the “together” in the shaping of our ecclesiology.
Together; apart. Not a sickness anymore, but a cure. It took a pandemic to teach us. There has been loss and grief along the way. But emerging, phoenix-like from the ashes of before, is a church which may be more whole, more inclusive, and ready to share the love of Jesus in a post-Corona world.