Curate’s Letter: Life as normal? Or, life as God wants it?

One of the things I remember reading near the start of this lockdown was a conversation from a mother to her daughter. Her daughter was bored, soon after lockdown began. The mother urged her daughter to keep a journal because she said that in decades to come, the daughter would recall the events around the pandemic and relay them to her grandchildren. Into that journal would go the best and the worst, because that is what happens when you write a journal. Emotions and facts are poured into the pages, that as soon as the page is turned, are kept hidden, until someone years later opens the journal and reads of the struggle of life under lockdown.

Last month I asked if we were up for the adventure of life after lockdown before we know what’s coming. I’m still asking that question. Most of us probably want things to stay as exactly as we can control. But that’s not what life is about, is it? Life itself isn’t black and white, it’s neither one or the other. Controlling others’ lives is neither freeing for ourselves, or for the people around us. For example, dictating who should sit on church committees because ‘they’re not like us’ shows a distinct lack of compassion. Perhaps you think the word ‘dictate’ is too strong a word? Perhaps I should describe the mechanism of exclusion and elitism? Perhaps I should describe it as privilege, in the sense of white, middle-class, and in the ‘in-group.’

It should be a privilege to serve on Vestry, to come alongside others who, like you, are struggling in their spirituality but want to serve God. It should be a humbling experience to serve God in any way we can – whether that is in the community, or in church. We should be open to explore others’ points of view with a wide variety of backgrounds, colour and ability. We should be willing to include anyone who wants to serve God, understanding that in our diversity the church has a greater chance of survival.

As the different regions of the UK begin to ease out of lockdown, we wonder whether life as normal will continue? Perhaps, for some of you, life has continued as normal and you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you’re wondering when church as normal is going to get going. I put it to you that church ‘as normal,’ here in Caithness wasn’t exactly welcoming to many people I have spoken to. I would include words that I have used elsewhere – such as white and middle-class and who’s in (and therefore who’s excluded).

Over the past few months, I have rung around a great many people, seeing how they are – rather than focussing in on the few who I know struggle or are housebound. I have spent much of my curacy saying sorry to people who have been hurt by anger in the church, those who wish to control, those who wish to have things exactly the way they want, those who have excluded others on some extraordinary impolite basis. And I am still saying sorry. The numbers of people whom I have not reached has vastly reduced, and I now have over one hundred people regularly receiving from the church across Caithness. That doesn’t include associated people in the care homes or other community initiatives.

I can now count on two hands those across Caithness whom I have not managed to reach for one reason or another. To those, if you’re reading this – I would love to make contact.

I, personally, don’t want to go back to ‘church as normal.’ As it was. I would love to see a church that is vibrant, welcoming, as diverse as it can be. No longer white, middle-class and privileged. And I can imagine some of you saying that introducing change like that is too fast, or it’s up to me to do all those things. I am not the church. The two churches in Caithness are not mine, but then again, neither are they yours. They belong to God and we, as a team, need to steward them with hearts full of care and compassion. Reaching out to those who no longer pop in – either on a Sunday or any other day of the week. 

Another quote I saw early in lockdown was an imagined conversation between the devil and God. The devil claps his hands in glee at the church buildings with their doors shut, and says ‘See… I have stopped church in its tracks.’ And God turns around and responds ‘Ah, but now I have church in every home.’

The paradox of lockdown of the church buildings was done out of love, and the gradual and cautious opening up of them will be done with love as well. The Vestries are working through guidance that the College of Bishops have issued. They will need to discuss all of the implications and prove to their diocesan bishop that they can meet all of the requirements before the church doors open for private prayer. 

In the meantime, services and Evening Prayer continue online – with as much access as we can provide. More people are accessing services online than physically come into our church buildings. What does that say about our attitude to Sunday services and church in general? Last month I wrote that we have to learn to let go of that way of ‘doing things.’ We have to let our favoured ways of doing and being church slip away. Church is not there for our possession. The church is not an object that can be misappropriated for our own means.

Life as God wants it doesn’t have ‘I’ in it. It doesn’t have self-justification, and apologies – saying sorry  – doesn’t come with a ‘but’ in the sentence. Life as God wants it is full of grace, it listens and is compassionate. It reaches out, out of our comfort zones. Love is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the being of God, and the meaning of humanity. This love was poured out on us at Pentecost, and it is up to us all to share it with everyone. Regardless of status, colour or ability. With hearts full of care and compassion, the church – the people – is embedded into the community, rather than sitting on the side-lines watching the world pass it by. There is no age-limit to bringing in that sort of change. All that is required is a compassionate heart and a willingness to pray. 

This, then, is where we need to begin. To understand that church is not a business and cannot run on a business model. It is a living, breathing organic structure that needs to flex and change and adapt as circumstances require. Prayer should be at the heart of all we do and say – it is only by submitting ourselves to God as individuals that what we do and the way we see others will begin to change. Prayer will help our way out of lockdown, and prayer will enable the Church in Caithness to grow. Please pray with me…

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