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.
Rainbows have sprung up everywhere. Some scribbled in crayon, others splatted in paint, and still more printed carefully and geometrically on an inkjet. Signs of defiant hope and deep courage in the face of immense change and loss.
And how quickly we were swept along by change. Watching the evening news bulletins felt enough to induce dizziness and disorientation. “The world’s gone mad” seemed to be a common sentiment, as new phrases and words tumbled into our everyday use: social distancing, self-isolation.
And as we, the Church, leaned into the storm, again and again I could hear the call in my mind, and in my prayers: “the Church is resilient”. Pastoral ministry has had to change more quickly and more substantially than (arguably) at any point in the history of the Church. Overnight, our tools were taken, but by day we crafted new ones. We are bent out of shape, but we are not broken. Incredible feats of community have emerged within hours. Entire communities of hundreds of people have moved their collective life online, or onto phone wires. As far as possible, we have endeavoured to leave no one behind.
And all done with a backdrop of rainbows, thanks in great part to the efforts of the nation’s children. Many have been, at times, anxious, confused and scared – and yet they, too, have shown deep resilience. And through their fear and anxiety has come hope, and kindness, and generosity. And one sign of this is the rainbows they have placed in their windows.
I spent some time reflecting with lay ministry trainees in Chester Diocese last week, on how their pastoral and listening ministries were being enacted within the present circumstances. We batted around words and concepts like “contact”, “reassure”, “afraid”, “worried”, “anxious”, “frustrated”. What was clear is that all of these men and women were still deeply engaged in pastoral ministry, as were their wider church communities. “The Church has not closed; the Church has been deployed” say various snappy Facebook memes.
Who would have thought that we could take away a capacity to meet face to face, to share physical contact, and food and drink, and sacred space – and that our pastoral ministry would actually be strengthened in a time of such denial?
Yet all around, I see strengthening pastoral ministry. I see connections being made, and company being sought out, and prayer being offered wholeheartedly, and love and encouragement shared: and all together-apart, or apart-together.
A people in exile
On being shut out of our buildings, the Archdeacon of Hastings, Edward Dowler, wrote a splendid article in the Church Times this week, (with which I disagreed almost entirely) arguing for clergy to be allowed access to their churches for prayer:
Similarly, what the clergy and other “worship leaders” (as the Government terms them) may be able to do in the current situation is to maintain the prayer life of their churches on behalf of the people of the parish as an act of service in the present, and in preparation for the day when, God willing, everyone can return.
There were holes in Dowler’s argument. The implication that prayer is more effective in certain places, done by certain people, is not problem-free. His assumption that empty churches might come to be seen as “spooky castles” by the neighbours denies the “thin place” atmosphere of these spaces. And his assumption that:
More prosaically, the presence of young children, the constantly ringing phone, and the internet mean that vicarages are not always havens of peace, conducive to prayer.
Raises its own questions about the nature of peace, and of prayer, and how those of us in pastoral ministry with young children might ever find it possible to pray in a sustainable way.
But more than anything, there is profound meaning in clergy joining laity in exile from sacred places. Together-apart. Apart-together. Together we have been sent, deployed, ensconced or shut out – depending on how one sees it.
And this is ever more profound because our buildings are so important, not because they are not. Sam Wells talks about the local church as being the place that holds collective memory for a community:
Often at the axis of the meeting of roads, the church building is also at the crossroads – whether consciously or unconsciously to the local inhabitants – of many singular moments of decision, change or transition… buildings in which ‘prayer has been valid’ are more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk we and others have loved.Wells (2008) Praying for England, 10, 12.
Our buildings are not empty. They are filled with memories both personal and collective, with prayers, with the still air that still holds the snuff of the candles and the damp of prayer books. They are filled, as Gilo has written so beautifully, with silence:
Silence is there. Praying in her many houses.
Clergy nor creed nor any religion own Her.
Walking the edges
I have found relief from the frustration of being unable to access our churches by walking the boundaries of the parish. A tradition that stretches back centuries, ‘beating the bounds’ is an ancient way to pray with movement and exercise for the wellbeing of the whole parish. We might be in exile, but still I can walk the paths of saints who went ahead, encircling, protecting, and committing to God. Prayer for my community has moved from the middle to the margins as, quite literally, I walk the margins and come to know my place of ministry from its edges.
This crisis will challenge our entitled clericalism and will hone our collaborative skills. Together, as clergy and lay, we pray, we minister, we rest – from a place of exile. As the priest of this place I have given a lead on some of this togetherness. But other leaders have emerged too. Those who quietly phone one another to offer friendship. Those who have led the way in establishing a daily collective prayer time in the parish. Those who have shared photos on social media to encourage and cheer each other up. All have been led, and all have led. None of it from our buildings. Together apart. More signs of an emerging, growing, strengthening pastoral ministry.
The eerie lull of liminal space
As a church (and a Church) we are now in the eerie quiet of liminal space. The initial shock of this crisis has worn off. We have mobilised and established new ways to be. We seem to be operating efficiently: resources are being developed; structures put in place. I am wary about too much structure; too much organising.
An eerie quiet has descended after the frantic chaos of the change we faced a fortnight ago.
What comes next? We don’t really know.
Perhaps more shock, more loss. Maybe we will have to dig even deeper, to find innovative ways to process our grief and live in this strange new world. Maybe there will be a new normal, or a return to the old and familiar.
We are becoming adept at living with the uncertainty.
And this is why pastoral ministry is a little like chasing rainbows, at present. We probably thought it couldn’t be done, without buildings, without food, without physical togetherness.
But here we are, doing it.
We chased the rainbow and we found we could go on.
In Christian tradition, the rainbow comes after the disaster. A promise that something new will come after something awful has happened. God’s sign that God will not let us go.
It is too early to tell sense-making stories and to find reason in the uncertainty.
But we can go on chasing rainbows, a day at a time, as our pastoral ministry thrives and evolves and something even more meaningful and profound emerges from the unknown, even from this place of exile.