I am the Church of England vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley. And these are troubling, difficult times. Things seem fragile and uncertain. And this may just be the beginning of something truly terrible. We aren’t sure what is quite in store.
On Sunday, the Diocese of London wrote to all clergy asking them to close their church buildings entirely. London is ahead of the rest of the country on the coronavirus curve, and as such, our doors are now closed even for private prayer. Yesterday, the government officially banned all weddings and baptisms across the country for the next three weeks.
The sheer shock of closing things down has had rather a remarkable effect. We do buildings and we are good at them – they are a brilliant community resource. What would the church do if we didn’t have our halls and churches? Well, we are finding out.
We may not be able to invite people to Sunday services, but we can invite them to watch services on the web. Various vicar friends are broadcasting their services, and making the service sheets available for the congregation to follow online. In some ways too, it’s a chance to experience different traditions and approaches. From Pentecostal-style churches like Hillsong to churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, we can see what else is out there. There is something oddly liberating and uniting about it all.
And we also need to remember that church has always really been about the people, not the buildings. Like so many other organisations, we need to be creative about keeping in touch and supporting our flock. WhatsApp groups and email chains have sprung up, and churches are using their websites as a community of care and discussion, rather than a broadcast medium.
It's not just for parishioners either. Being a vicar can be solitary – even lonely. But in the last week our new WhatsApp group has become a lifeline – a place for us to share our fears and challenges. Why didn’t we do this before the virus struck? Each day I am ringing two dozen people and just listening to them. Again, I wonder why I didn’t do more of this before the virus. Perhaps I was too comfortable. But now, like the rest of the country, we are reminded again of our need for company and friendship.
Losing the anchor of the building has helped us to rely on each other, to realise we are all in the same boat and to focus on that great human commodity – love. Speaking to other clergy, it appears we all have the same thoughts – we want to serve the nation, bring hope – the great currency of the Christian faith – and be there when we are needed. We can help people to know that this will not last forever, even though things are dark and difficult now. We stand ready. There is a spiritual dimension to this, or any contagion. It tends to bring questions to the surface – but also deep primeval fears about infection and death and loss.
I am drawn back to the words of a 7th Century mystic – Julian of Norwich. She was isolated in a small room at her church for most of her life and spent her time counselling and praying for people who came up to the hatch she looked out of. It was time of terrible plague. Her words have power even today.
"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
This awful time will change many things forever. It will also change the Church. But that may be no bad thing.