Changed times?

CLOSED churches. Locked parochial halls. Silent pulpits. Restricted funeral services. Hospital and care homes no longer on regular clergy visiting lists. Home calls and the house bound now a phone call rather than a doorbell away. Sunday routines a new experience. As for Holy Week and Easter Day . . .

And in the world beyond, constant viewing of TV news bulletins with the latest death figures, worries about family members and finding jobs to do that have been ignored for too long and not realising it is simply in the ‘doing ‘that our minds can be occupied . . .

In our parishes, worries about jobs and collapse of businesses – often small concerns built up carefully over the years but now facing closure. For farmers the threat of falling markets for dairy products and vegetables beginning to fade in their fields. For many young people disruption to exams and doubts about future careers . . .

In so many hearts and minds the question is the same: what does my faith say to me now?

Changed times?

As I respond to the editor’s invitation to pen this brief reflection, could any of us have imagined such a scenario for everyday life even a few months ago?

A virus infection sweeping across the globe bringing multiple deaths, disrupting national life in most countries – and compelling fundamental questions about priorities in everyday life.

The emergence of a silent virus, which kills without distinction of creed, nationality or colour has changed the nature of what we understand as normal life – possibly in many ways for ever.

And it is within that picture of our world that the family of the Church of Ireland lives.

To say as some do that this is not the first major crisis to face our Church is of course quite correct. Just think of some of them. Disestablishment was an event that could have resulted in a denomination without vision or hope outside the privilege of ‘established by law’. Generations of Irish Anglicans have survived the division of our island home into two political and legal jurisdictions. Two world wars have changed the face of Europe. Yet the traditional Church of Ireland life continued.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland, quite apart from the fear and suffering, had the potential to question our understanding of each other in the two Provinces of the Church. But we survived; and the General Synod met each year as usual. Brexit had a greater significance for both parts of Ireland than any other European region because of the consequences of geography; yet our diocesan boundaries have so far remained the same. Throughout world and national crises, our Church synodical government has identified what we are. Our membership of the Anglican Communion has provided us with the fellowship and support of a worldwide family in times of need.

But somehow, this time it’s a different sort of challenge.

Restricted in movement and the expression of our collective identity in worship, many have found new ways to express their faith; and while some have come to a deeper understanding of God, others have questioned the ‘faith once delivered’. Modern methods of communication have opened the door to ways of contacting and sharing between people, which would have been unheard of in previous generations. Devotional addresses and personalised meditations have become a common method for parochial clergy to communicate with their congregation, choral settings to popular hymns or songs shared on the Internet have replaced the traditional parish pew on a Sunday. Growing familiarity with a variety of electronic devices has opened the way for new approaches to Christian fellowship. We are still learning how to use modern technology but the opportunities for sharing worship are vast.

A daunting challenge

In my personal times of prayer I think of those who are entrusted with the leadership of our Church at this time of crisis. The role of a bishop in the Church of Ireland carries responsibilities that involve prayerful concern for all members of a diocese, for the episcopacy is an instrument of unity. The challenges awaiting our new Primate in these critical days for Ireland could not be more daunting. Five dioceses, including Clogher, have recently welcomed a new bishop or look forward to doing so as I write. Could any imagine a more difficult time to assume the privilege and the burdens of episcopal leadership and service?

From years of experience in pastoral ministry, I find myself thinking of the role of parish clergy in the current situation. Theological college and post-ordination training could never have prepared them for days like these. During the Troubles the words “when God calls He also enables” came to mean great encouragement for clergy in the face of tension and rejection; so once again today a reminder of the enthusiasm with which we responded to the Call years ago can give new courage. Yet the frustration of being unable to provide adequate pastoral ministry to those in need, being unable to reach out in person to those suffering weakness in hospital, and the restrictions on offering full support to the bereaved, are not only a challenge to vocation but to our personal sense of duty. But if we believe in anything we believe that when God calls us to any task in His Name we are offered the abiding strength of His grace. This is nowhere more obvious than in the ups and downs of parochial life where situations can arise with little or no warning. The Church of Ireland has always been noted for its strong emphasis on pastoral ministry but rarely has there been a greater challenge to how that ministry can be exercised than now.

May all our clergy be conscious of the understanding and prayers of our Church family in these trying days.

Questions for faith

Critics of Christian belief and practice have not been slow to seize upon the pandemic and the widespread human suffering it brings, to question the existence and teaching of Christ. Nor is such questioning reserved for the Christian religion alone. Faith practice in general is open to labels of irrelevance at best and to open rejection at worst. Ireland, north and south, was changing in so many ways before the pandemic, and religious denominations were not always alert to the real nature of those changes. What will society look like when the virus passes? What will it look for from its traditional Churches? Will the nature of the Church’s message to that post-virus Ireland contribute a relevancy which will be listened to?

We are frequently told by commentators that when the current emergency is over nothing will be the same. One wonders could the same comment be made in relation to the Christian Churches? In particular how will these months of lock-down have affected the Church of Ireland? When we reopen our churches, will attendance on a Sunday once more become a way of life for some? When freedom of movement is restored will traditional forms of worship emerge in the same form as before? How relevant to society will the Christian community be?

These are questions to which answers will only emerge in time.

One thought spans the current situation and our unknown future: the Christian voice of hope and love can never be silenced. The Gospel truth at the heart of the response the Church presents to society in the current situation and beyond, is of a God of compassion and hope.

It may be an over simplification, but the prayer of Henry Francis Lyte says it all:

“Change and decay in all around I see
O thou who changest not, abide with me. . .”

Changed times? Some things never change