Disasters and their opportunities
Covid, flood, war, are disasters which no counter narrative can disguise. They have brought, and are bringing, untold suffering and misery on so many people. And yet, is it not also true that they have within them the seed bed of possibility, something new, something fresh, something hopeful, something life giving.
The tragedy is that the opportunity may not be grasped by those who have the most leverage to deliver it.
The recent floods in eastern Australia have been ‘unprecedented’. They have been recognised, with those with eyes to see, as another graphic harbinger of a changing climate and the urgent need for changed human responsibility. As of this moment there is not the slightest indication that the Morrison government will do anything, invest anything, to meet this challenge. In response to the 2019 fires ‘he did not hold a hose’ and in the floods refuses to walk the open streets for fear of being told home truths by the people.
It is far too early to reflect on opportunity and change available when eventually the brutality inflicted on the courageous Ukrainian people comes to an end, but we can only pray that those with political power in the US, Europe, and Russia, will have vision and courage to enable a freer and more noble European order.
I want to reflect on the covid pandemic from personal experience and consider the opportunities it has presented to the Church. I hardly need to recall that the Church and the practice of Christianity in the Western world, especially Australia, has been, and is, in sharp decline. On first look it is reasonable to assume that Covid caused restrictions on gatherings has hastened this decline. Many, perhaps most congregations report reduced numbers.
Since the beginning of covid, Margaret and I have been spiritually nourished from two sources that would not have been there if it were not for covid.
The first has been the daily garden congregation emanating from Robert Willis, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Without missing a day, he has given an extraordinary daily gift to thousands around the world who have joined him. How he has maintained the daily gift in addition to all his other responsibilities, not to mention the need for personal refreshment and rest – I do not know.
Partly by accident, partly by intuition, largely through Godly inspiration he has hit on a recipe that works. That he is erudite, a fine musician, theologically and biblically scholarly, helps a great deal. Like all talented people he makes what he does seem simple when it most certainly is not. He settles himself somewhere in the Dean’s Garden, variously amongst pigs, turkeys, geese, cats and flowers, sunshine or rain, with a prayer book, bible and cup of tea. He starts with the opening of morning prayer from the prayer book, reads the set psalm, and a passage of scripture and then reflects. The reflection on the scripture is both scholarly and yet easy to follow, almost always there is an insight which may not have been apparent before.
He then goes on to reflect upon events or lives from the past that have an anniversary on this date, and in doing so brings relevance and insight to our contemporary lives. He also reflects on present day events most latterly of course the war in Ukraine. He concludes with prayer, silence and a blessing.
When he retires after Easter one can only hope that somehow this gift will have a continuing life.
The second resource has been the weekly or fortnightly gathering of people in our home. When covid began and gatherings were shut down, Margaret and I offered to keep contact with parishioners who live ‘north of the river’ in our Parish. The original list has changed, but now we have between 20 – 30 folk who join us – not all on the same day. !5 squeezed in once but mostly it is 12. Interestingly, a significant proportion of those who attend have not been, or would not otherwise be, regular Church goers.
Again, we seem to have hit on a recipe that works. We sit around an extended dining room table. Margaret decorates the table according to the season or the theme for the Sunday. Everyone lights their own candle opposite their seat. I do not wear robes, but my stole lies across the length of the table. We start with some music, a reflective prayer (often from a Celtic source), join in the prayer of preparation and I pray the collect for the week. Three pieces of scripture are read (responsibility for reading conveyed by email). I lead the reflection on the readings for 8 – 10 minutes. Everyone participates in the ongoing reflection for perhaps 15 minutes (on occasions it is much longer)!! We then pray, led sometimes by one of the others at the table. I celebrate the Eucharist, using various sources, often Celtic. Each communicates the person next to them. I then conclude with prayer and blessing.
With liturgy over, the table is stripped of it candles and decorations and brunch is served. Conversations follow from the earlier reflection and cross over to shared experiences of the week etc. By the time folk leave two hours have passed – on occasions three. Folk are constantly reminded that here they are participating in the life of the wider Parish, Diocese, and universal Church.
I share both these experiences to demonstrate that worship in a conventional Parish setting is not necessarily the only or even the best way of nourishing spiritual life in the contemporary world. The need for a spiritual dimension is widely felt, but the place to find it eludes most.
We all grow through participation. Participation is made possible through hospitality - in my first example in a garden and in the second, a dining room table. Christianity is not primarily or even secondarily submission to dogma – it is essentially about following a WAY, a way that has taken human flesh. Christians are nourished through Word that is spoken and bread that is broken.
The opportunity/challenge facing the Church is to find ways of offering a range of hospitable experiences through which people can grow spiritually – for It is a terrible mistake to think that the role of Christian leadership is to ‘do God for people’, people and God do their own business. Our task is to find, or create, hospitable and open spaces where this can be nurtured.