Sunday, 26 April 2020

Journey with Jesus on the Emmaus Road - a guided reflection

In this time when we’re not able to share communion together, this guided reflection offers an opportunity for each of us to meet Jesus in the breaking of bread, in our own home, wherever we are. It was intended for use at any time in these weeks where we’re cut off physically from each other – but has special significance this week, as it’s based on this Sunday’s gospel reading.

Walk through the reflection slowly. Give it time. One of the many, many insights of this story is, as Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama puts it:

God walks “slowly” because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster…. [Love] goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.’

Emmaus Road, by He Qi

With Jesus on the road: ‘what things?’

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?”

Imagine you’re walking down that road, heading home, walking and talking with a friend or loved one. Talking together about everything that’s going on in the world.

Imagine Jesus comes alongside you, and asks you what you’re talking about. It’s an open question: ‘what things?’

Tell Jesus what’s been going on. Don’t worry that he’ll know already. Imagine him as a friendly stranger, who’s a good listener. Tell him what’s important to you right now.

With Jesus on the road:
hopes dashed, and a rumour of resurrection

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

‘We had hoped…’, say the disciples. They share with Jesus their hopes and their disappointments – and their shock and grief. And they share their wonderings, however doubtful – a rumour of resurrection – the faintest of hopes, a tiny glimmer of possibility of life beyond death.

Share with Jesus what’s on your heart. Tell him how you’re feeling: the happy and the sad, the hopeful and the fearful, the things you’re thankful for and the things that are heart-breaking.

With Jesus on the road: re-telling the story

25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

It’s probably not the response they were expecting! Jesus sounds a bit harsh here. But if we can get over that, we hear him responding to their story-telling with some story-telling of his own: helping them see how their fragments of experience are in fact part of a much bigger Story, that stretches back to the beginning of creation, and forward to the ‘making new’ of all things. And helping them understand that he, Jesus, is in the middle of it all – with us, in it all, every step of the way.

Where might Jesus be in the midst of all that is going on right now? What words might he be saying, to you, and to those others for whom you’re praying? What might it mean, that our stories of suffering and death, of disappointment and fear, are held within his story of love and healing, of death and resurrection?

Spend some time listening for a word of hope and promise – or, in the silence, simply know yourself in the company of Jesus.

Inviting Jesus in

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

‘Stay with us…’, the disciples say to Jesus. Invite Jesus to come into your home, to stay – to be with you, here and now.

Imagine opening your door for him, and welcoming him in. Imagine him coming in with you, following you through your home and sitting down next to you where you are.

A hymn / prayer (especially for evenings):

Lord Jesus Christ, abide with us,
Now that the sun has run its course;
Let hope not be obscured by night,
But may faith's darkness be as light.

Lord Jesus Christ, grant us your peace.
And when the trials of earth shall cease.
Grant us the morning light of grace,
The radiant splendour of your face.

Immortal, Holy, Threefold Light.
Yours be the kingdom, pow'r, and might;
All glory be eternally
To you, life-giving Trinity!
Text: Mane Nobiscum Domine; Melody: Old 110th


30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Take some bread in your hands, just as Jesus did.

Break it, just as Jesus did.

Take a piece and eat it.

‘Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…’

Know that Jesus is with you, closer than breathing.

Spend some time just dwelling in this moment, with thankfulness.

Longing to return

33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This is where the story ends. For us, at the moment, there is an incompleteness. It’s not possible for us to leave home, and return to a place where all our friends are gathered together – where we can exchange our stories of where we’ve met Jesus. We long for that day. We maybe even ache for it.

But what is possible today, or tomorrow? Who can we speak to – on the phone, on a doorstep, or at a window? Who can we share with, the glimpses we’ve caught of the risen Jesus, of hope and life?

Jesus, beloved friend, we thank you:
for listening to us along the way,
for coming in to be with us here,
and for making yourself known
in the breaking of bread.
Stay with us, we pray,
and when the day comes,
go ahead of us into the world:
that we might see your presence and hear your voice
in loved ones, in strangers, in neighbours all,
as we join together to cry:
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What happens on the Emmaus Road, as the bewildered friends of Jesus and the friend they’d thought they’d lost walk together, is ‘the unfolding of a Person’ (these words are from Roland Allen, a theologian): as they walk and talk, Jesus offers space for his friends to ‘unfold’ their lives, their stories, in his company; and he too ‘unfolds’ for them his story – the story they thought they knew, but had not, until then, grasped more than tiny fragments of it.

And in the walking, and the unfolding, and their instinct to want to carry on this conversation, deepen this relationship further, that is behind their invitation to ‘stay with us’ – they begin to notice, realise, see things that before they had not noticed, realised, or seen.

In these weeks of what many are calling ‘lockdown’, when so much of normal life has been put on ‘hold’ (and who knows what our new ‘normal’ might look life after this?), I wonder if we might hear a deeper invitation, an invitation from the God who is Love: to a journey, a walking together; to a conversation, an ‘unfolding’ of ourselves to each other; and to a noticing, a possibility of seeing with new eyes things about the world, and its people and other creatures, that we have not ever seen or noticed before.

I’m going to finish with a picture, and a poem, that were shared with me by a travelling companion of mine, a theologian of mission, Cathy Ross. She reminds us that it is very often the people we tend not to notice – the little ones, the ones on the edges, the ones who are rarely given value – who see Jesus most clearly, and who will help us see Jesus more clearly too. I wonder who, in our world today, we are beginning to notice more, value more, and who might help us, in this time, begin to see Jesus afresh too?

Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, c. 1618, Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding

her breath. Surely that voice

is his – the one

who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,

as no one ever had looked?

Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,

taking the platter of bread from hers just now?

Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.

The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.

The man it was rumoured now
some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table

don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.

But she in the kitchen,
absently touching the wine-jug she’s to take in,

a young Black servant intently listening.

swings round and sees

the light around him

and is sure.

Priesthood for all, in the time of COVID-19

"Marsh reeds, when full grown, vary from five to ten feet in height, and the tassels on the ends of the good ones are thicker than squirrels' tails. The next time you walk past a bank of reeds, try something. Pick out the tallest one you can reach, and cut it off with your penknife as close to the ground as possible. Ostensibly, perhaps even to yourself, it will seem that you are cutting it down to carry home to your children. No one will take serious exception. But in the carrying of it, you will make a discovery. Keep a record of your reactions: It is impossible simply to carry a marsh reed. For how will you hold it? Level? Fine. But it is ten feet long, and plumed in the bargain. Are you seriously ready to march up the main street of town as a knight with lance lowered? Perhaps it would be less embarrassing to hold it vertically. Good. It rests gracefully in the crook of your arm. But now it is ten feet tall and makes you the bearer of a fantastic mace. What can you do to keep it from making a fool of you? To grasp it with one hand and use it in your walking only turns you from a king into an apostle... Do you see what you have discovered? There is no way of bearing the thing home without becoming an august and sacred figure... So much so that most people will never finish the experiment: the reed, if cut at all, will never reach home. Humankind cannot stand very much reality: the strongest doses of it are invariably dismissed as silliness. But silly is from selig, and selig means 'blessed'..." (Robert Farrar Capon, 'An Offering of Uncles', in The Romance of the Word, pp.45-6).
The vast majority of us - especially those of us who live in urban areas like me and my neighbours in Firs and Bromford - will not have the opportunity to cut and carry a marsh reed for the foreseeable future. But Robert Farrar Capon, in his characteristically poetic and provocative style, describes here something which, I have a hunch, many of us have experienced in a whole variety of different ways over the last few weeks: the discovery that ordinary and everyday things - things we may not even have noticed or have tended to take for granted - are in fact something more, something more significant, something more remarkable, something more valuable, than we had realised up until now.

In Capon's terms - and he was an American Episcopalian (i.e. Anglican) priest - the bearer of the marsh reed is fulfilling the vocation of humanity: to be priests. What that vocation looks like for that small subset of people ordained by the Christian Church to be Priests (with a capital 'P', perhaps), has been something that the current COVID-19 crisis has somewhat thrown up in the air. I've already reflected on this a bit in some previous blog posts - especially on the temptations to the power of the provider, the performer and the possessor, and the im/possibility of 'sharing communion' when we are physically separated. Here, I want to take up Revd Dr Julie Gittoes' suggestion, that I reflected on in that previous post on communion, that as church we are living in an extended time of 'scatteredness', between the moments of eucharistic 'gathering', and that in this extended interval we might be learning more deeply what it means to live 'eucharistically':
"Perhaps this interval reveals the power of the sacrament: the space where we weave the eucharist into the daily life, and thereby transform it. The scattered Church thus continues to live and move, pray and serve, breath by breath — albeit over a longer and more difficult interval."
What Julie names as 'living eucharistically', Capon calls 'the priesthood of humanity' - and he unfolds it, helpfully I think, in terms of place, time and history - terms that are, in our present times, being opened up for re-conceiving in ways that they have perhaps not been for a while. It is humanity's priesthood, Capon suggests, that refuses the abstractions of space (that can be mapped, engineered, packaged, bought and sold) and instead offers up the particularities and uniqueness, the storiedness and sacredness of place. It is humanity's priesthood that marks - notices, celebrates, mourns - chronological time ('chronos' in Greek), that measurable but uninteresting quantity (that at the moment seems, for many of us, to be dissolving even more than usual into an undifferentiated blur), in ways that discovers 'kairos' (Greek, again) time - 'real time', 'high time', as Capon puts it - time for things of significance, for noticing, for celebrating, for mourning, for loving, for living, for dying, for rising. And these priestly 'raisings' of 'space' and 'chronos-time' into 'place' and 'kairos-time' are, in Capon's way of framing things, about raising our mere 'chronicling of events' into something we might call 'history' - something with shape, direction, meaning, significance.

For Capon, it is no coincidence at all that this history of humanity's priesthood begins in a garden: 'And the Lord God took the earth-creature [adam, in Hebrew] and put it into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it' [to 'serve and observe' it, as Hebrew scholar Ellen Davis has translated it].
"Look, Adam, he says. Look closely. This is no jungle; this is a park. It is not random, but shaped. I have laid it out for you this year, but you are its [gardener] from now on. The leaves will fall after the summer, and the bulbs will have to be split. You may want to put a hedge over there, and you might think about a gazebo down by the river - but do what you like; it's yours. Only look at its real shape, love it for itself, and life it into the exchanges you and I shall have. You will make a garden that will be the envy of the angels." (Capon, Romance, p.54)
Capon, writing 40 years ago, even then was very aware of how humanity has both responded gloriously and failed desperately in our priestly vocation as 'earth-creatures'. Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, writing much more recently, put it starkly in their reading of the Letter to the Romans:
"The point of many of the prophetic texts that Paul alludes to in Romans is that we have forgotten who we are. The earth creatures have failed to live up to the calling we were given, this calling to make the earth fully our home. This is what the language about exchanging the image of the living God is about... We have failed to be the ones who imaged God, and we have forgotten our roots in the earth. We are no longer the earth creatures but the death-bringers. We have replaced "till and keep" with "take and destroy." We have supplanted "serve and observe" with "dominate and discard." (Romans Disarmed, p.193)
But what if this time, this time of so-called 'lockdown', is an invitation to be opened up: to our primary calling as earth-creatures, to the priesthood of all humanity? What if this time is an invitation to all of us to practise the arts some of us have been taught when learning how best to 'supervise' colleagues: to articulate well, within all our relationships, sentences (with or without words) that begin 'I notice...', 'I wonder...' and 'I realise...'? What if this time is an invitation to all of us to notice, wonder, and realise things about ourselves, our fellow creatures, our world, and the God who is in all of her creation - that we have either forgotten, or have never before known? And what if our noticing, our wondering, our realising flows into gratitude, thankfulness, a life that is 'eucharistic' (for 'eucharist', at its root, simply means thanksgiving)?

This is why our poets are so needed right now - and the particular kind of priesthood that they offer. And they are, thank God, stepping up to the moment. Lynn Ungar, Tim Watson (@beatliturgist), Arundhati Roy, Cormac Russell and Nicola Slee are among many who are offering us words as windows into the deeper realities of now - and I name these just because they are poets who have spoken to me. Barbara Brown Taylor's phrase 'an altar in the world' has resurfaced for me, especially: many of us are, I think, discovering such altars hidden in patches of woodland on our daily walks; we are learning that there are countless altars to be discovered in our world masquerading as hospital beds, supermarket tills, and bin lorries; and we are discovering too that our kitchen tables are so often such altars too.

Which brings me back to eucharist.
"For Christians, a sacrament is not a transaction - not an operation that produces an effect that wasn't there before... Take the Eucharist. And take the highest possible view of it: the bread and wine, at the beginning of the rite, are mere bread and wine; but when they are received by the faithful at the Communion, they are the body and blood of Christ - they are Jesus himself, really present in all of his divinity and all of his humanity, and in all the power of his death and resurrection. A question arises, however: Is this eucharistic "change of status" an ordinary, transactional alteration, like the change of flour into bread? Does the act of celebrating the Eucharist "mix up a batch of Jesus"? Does Jesus, during the service, show up in a room from which he was previously absent? Do benefits we were formerly without suddenly begin to flow our way in Communion?  
"The answer to those questions, I think, has to be a flat no... It's not that their tank was topped off with Jesus the previous Sunday but now needs a refill. They never lost a drop of him, because he never left them... But if that's the case, do they really receive him? And if so, how do you go about theologizing that reception? You refuse to make the Blessed Sacrament a transaction, that's how. You say it really is the presence of Jesus, but you don't make it out to be an insertion of Jesus. You say the eucharistic presence is a mirror held up to the church's face so it can see the Jesus it already has. You say it's a dinner with the Jesus who's already in the house. You say any non-transactional thing you can think of - just as long as you say it's a party the church is already at and not some limousine that brings Jesus to the church's door." (Capon, Romance, pp.22-23)
We are, to reiterate, missing something during this time when we're not able to physically gather, not able to share communion, physically present to one another. "We are less than what we can be", to quote poet Tim Watson. And yet, we affirm, Jesus is "already in the house" - and profoundly so, if we would but notice him.

Yesterday I was inspired by a good friend and (until recently) close colleague, Revd Becky Stephens, who has just been licensed (over Zoom) as incumbent to a new parish and has had to begin her priestly ministry there without any form of physical gathering of her new congregation. She tweeted:
"I'm spending time this week gathering recorded readings, prayers, music and singing from different members of the @StPeters_SC family. It's just blessing me so much and often bringing a tear to my eye. I may not know the people yet, but there are so many beautiful gifts among them."
In this time when 'providing' and 'performing' (not to mention 'possessing') are grabbing a lot of the headlines, both inside and beyond the networks we call 'church', I want to read Becky's time spent in this past week as authentic an outworking of her (ordained) priestly vocation as I have seen anywhere. She has attended to the labour of love of gathering the priestly offerings of others: their noticings, their stories, their reflections, their prayers and praise. She has found a way of creating space to 'hear those offerings to speech', inviting them to be articulated, and receiving them in humble hands to offer, in turn, to God with thanksgiving.

As Capon observes, in a church - a world! - full of priests, the specific vocation of the ordained priesthood is to be "mirrors in which the church [and the world] sees the priesthood it already has". I would add, sitting where I am in the overlap between church and neighbourhood, that this is a vital aspect of the role of community-builder too: 'reflecting back' to our neighbours the gifts that they have, the gifts that they are, and the gifts that are being uncovered and offered in our neighbourhood.

I wonder if this, picking up on Revd Jody Stowell's reflections in Part 4 of my blog on rediscovering the 'uselessness' and marginal nature of ordained priesthood, might be an aspect of that calling (to ordination and/or to community-building) that some of us need to be rediscovering. Without the usual tools in our toolbox - and without our weekly rhythms of physical gathering, for community-building and for eucharist - that gentle work of mirroring, of 'reflecting back', might in some ways be harder work than in 'ordinary time'. But in other ways, as Julie has suggested, this extended time as 'dispersed' church might also be a liberating of all of our priesthoods, a bringing our shared priesthood to the surface - that might make the particular work of gathering and celebrating those offerings much less a burden, and much more an irresistible gift.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Resurrection deferred? COVID-19 & the disruption in liturgical time (5)

This started out as a short blog post, and then it turned out there was quite a lot to say. So we're currently on Part 5. So far, we've covered:
- Part 1: why it might be helpful to think of the COVID-19 lockdown as a collective experience of trauma, and why politically we need to attend to 'what remains'
- Part 2: why it's helpful to think of the strange, in-between, grief-ridden 'Holy Saturday' time as lasting more than a day
- Part 3: why 'Easter dawns slowly' - the first time, and every year, and especially this year
- Part 4: why (for the more privileged among us, especially) it might be worth staying with the Lenten discipline of facing our temptations, and discovering the gifts that fasting brings

And now we're here. Not at the most important part of these reflections, but perhaps at the knottiest question of this moment - at least for the Anglican Christians among us - what do we do about communion?

And this needs taking slowly and carefully. Because around the networks of social media, it seems there has been at least as much heat than light generated on this question. And that's for a number of reasons. Firstly, to state the obvious, there are lots of very different eucharistic practices and theologies out there right now. Secondly, equally obvious, there were lots of very different eucharistic practices and theologies out there before the COVID-19 lockdown. Thirdly, this stuff has been the raw material for heated argument over centuries, let alone the last few weeks - because for many Christians it comes close to vital, sustaining, transformative practices of faith - not just individually, but in relation to other Christians, and in relation to 2,000 years of Christian faith and tradition. Fourthly, it taps into all of the three kinds of power I explored in Part 4 of this blog - and how power is used is always fraught with dangers for our relationships and conversations. And lastly (and I'm sure there are more reasons that I've missed), we're in the midst of a traumatic crisis, and 'crisis thinking' tends towards shutting down spaces for patient, generous conversation, rather than holding them open.

So here, I'm going to begin by sketching out some important aspects of our local context here in Hodge Hill. Then I'm going to recall some of the dimensions of what we've explored so far, focusing on the specific question of communion - attending to the entwined but different experiences of those who usually find themselves on the receiving end, and those of us who usually have responsibility for 'holding open' the eucharistic space. And finally, I'm going to briefly explain what we're currently offering in Hodge Hill, and why.

Some local context

Before lockdown, the 'regular worshipping congregation' of the Hodge Hill Church community was around 90 people. Rarely did we have all 90 in one place. Regularly there were at least six different 'expressions of [worshipping and praying] church' here - with some overlap between them all. 

Almost exactly half of those 90 are over 70 years old. Roughly half have access to WhatsApp (and have joined a daily prayer WhatsApp group, sharing prayer requests together). Around 16 people have engaged with weekly Sunday 'Zoom coffee time' over the last few weeks, and that is probably roughly the limit of those who have the technology to be able to do that. Around 25 people are on our church Facebook group. And around 35 people have no internet access - and we deliver or post weekly paper mailings to them - as well as the phone calls to everyone that our pastoral care team are getting in every week.

But there's something else to be said about 'normal life' here in Hodge Hill. Around half of the church congregation are normally involved in one of the many gathering spaces in our local neighbourhoods beyond 'Sunday church'. And when we as a church recall our mission statement as 'growing loving community - in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill', we include within those wider circles of community: a Place of Welcome at our Old Rectory Community House, and a cooking group 'Flavours of Hodge Hill' at the Hub community centre, on a Monday; Morning Prayer, Open Door drop-in and Community Lunch at the Hub on a Tuesday; a communion service followed by tea & toast or a soup & sandwich lunch at The Old Rectory on a Wednesday; our Women's Group 'Place of Welcome' at Ambridge House community centre, and The Real Junk Food Kitchen 'pay as you feel' community lunch, on a Thursday; and, from Spring through to Autumn, a whole load of locally-hosted Street Events, in squares and green spaces across our neighbourhood; and more, that are either more sporadic, or with less direct church involvement, or that I've just forgotten.

In other words - and I'm sure we're far from unique here in Hodge Hill on this - there is here a rich, interconnected ecology of gatherings, reciprocal hospitality, food-sharing, conversation and inclusive participation. As well as all those spaces I've just named, it also includes Sunday gatherings as 'FAB Church' (our relatively new little expression of church emerging in the midst of our community-building work on the estate), our Psalm Breakfast gatherings at The Old Rectory, and the Sunday 10.30am eucharistic gatherings at the United Reformed Church building that we sometimes call 'big church', or the 'mother ship', in attempts at some kind of fuzzy clarity.

I'm laying this all out for one reason. All of this - all of this - is on hold during lockdown. This is not just about not being able to go to the church building. This is not just about not being able to do a Sunday communion service. This is a rupture that goes across every strand of our whole interconnected ecology. And that hurts. It is deeply, profoundly painful, heart-breaking. Personally, because I am missing the rhythm of connection and sharing that sustains and enlivens me from week to week. And pastorally, because I know so many of my friends and neighbours, who we at times only semi-jokingly refer to as our 'co-conspirators' here, are missing it too - often in ways that are felt even more sharply, and with more threat to their social, emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing, than for me.

Doing eucharistic theology in lockdown (1): what we're missing

For many of my fellow Christians in other places, it is the eucharist, celebrated in ways recognisable within the traditions and rules of their denomination or church tradition, that makes sense of the rest of life. All other places of hospitality, bread-breaking, food-sharing acquire their meaning and significance only when they are placed within the orbit of this central, meaning-making moment. For many of my Christian kin, the loss of those other 'tables' is sad, but it is the loss of the eucharistic table that is the fundamental tragedy. It's around this table that the real 'food for the journey' is distributed. Everything else is just - I don't know - a paler imitation?

For many of us here, though, I believe it's more complex than that. For us here, I think the eucharist only makes sense - in 'ordinary time', at least - in the context of all the other eucharistic spaces which weave together the fabric of our community life. The sharing around those other tables is real food, real sharing. The gathering dimension of the eucharist is profoundly impaired here not just because we can't gather for the eucharist in person - but also because some of the most significant raw material that would normally be gathered up and offered from our daily lives - our meeting and eating and sharing around other tables - is simply not there, at the moment, to be gathered and offered. There is a rupture in the eucharistic ecology here, locally, that is not easily mended by one of the widely-available sticking plasters.

Even within the 'normally gathered church community', however, there is also a profound rupture. As I said in the introduction, only 16 out of a possible 90 'regular attenders' have engaged with our 'zoom coffee times' - and I don't think there are many more congregation members with the technology to be able to do so. And even if we were to live stream something via Facebook or YouTube, more than 1/3 of our congregation would have no way of accessing them. How can we 'make eucharist' together if a third of the regular members of the body of Christ are excluded from it? The principles of community (we make eucharist together, as the people of God - not simply receive it passively, individually) and inclusivity (we do whatever we can to not put barriers, or reinforce barriers, in the way of anyone participating) are fundamental to our understanding of eucharist - of corporate worship generally - here.

Over the last few days, helpful suggestions from across the country have led us towards the possibility of a 'phone-in' service to be able to hear a recording, of a reading, a reflection and some prayers, for example. But how can we meaningfully call this 'participation' when it is reduced simply to one of our five senses, and there is no scope for any kind of agency other than listening?

So, for the moment, and with heavy hearts, we've decided here that we will fast from celebrating the eucharist. A fast both chosen and unchosen. Chosen, because the current - and always provisional - outcome of our corporate decision-making processes has been to not attempt to find ways to 'do communion', corporately, in any way which excludes a proportion of the membership of the body of Christ here from participation. Unchosen, not just because circumstances have thrust this decision upon us as a church, but because, as I've said, we are a part of a wider eucharistic ecology locally that is inescapably (if temporarily) ruptured, and there is nothing whatsoever that we can do right now to mend that wound.

But religious fasting is always both chosen and unchosen. Chosen in the sense that individual believers could choose not to fast. But unchosen in the sense that the time of fasting (Lent, Ramadan) comes upon us without any choice on our part. Unchosen even for Jesus, who was flung into the desert by the Spirit, and whose only choice was, perhaps, not to resist.

What remains?

In the midst of the rupture, however, what remains of our eucharistic ecology? There are, still, dining tables and kitchen tables around which food is shared and eaten. There are, still, conversations full of mutual listening and shared grief and shared joy and deepening love, both on the phone and, increasingly, on doorsteps and balconies and driveways and in the street. There are, still, expressions of creativity and joy and care and community, to be found in largely unseen, untracked filaments woven through our neighbourhoods. Much of that is even growing and flourishing in unexpected ways.

There are, still, homes in which versions of our meal-time liturgy (very loosely inspired by the Jewish 'Shabbat' meal - see image at the bottom of this blog post) is being said each week - by families with children, by individuals living on their own. And candles are lit, and hands are washed, and bread is broken, and prayers are said, and wine (sometimes!) is poured and drunk, and these words, among others, are said:

"As Jesus' friends recognised him
present with them in the breaking of the bread,
so may Jesus bless our meal with his presence,
and fill us with a hunger for justice."

There are, perhaps for the first time, homes in which people - on their own or with others - are spending time quietly, gently, slowly with the story of the Road to Emmaus [see the guided meditation we've offered, here]... imagining ourselves walking and talking with Jesus... sharing what's on our hearts and listening for ways in which our stories are being re-told within a bigger, more expansive, more enduring, more hopeful story than we had known or imagined... inviting Jesus to come and 'stay with us', in our homes, where we are... and, taking bread in our own hands and breaking it, and eating it, knowing that Jesus is with us, closer than breathing.

Is it communion? Not in its fullest sense: not done all together, physically present to each other; not done with all of our senses, with all of all of us engaged and involved and active together in making it happen; not offering up in thanksgiving the whole of a rich and flourishing eucharistic ecology woven through the life of our neighbourhood - and that remains a source of loss, and lack, and longing, and heart-break. It's also not 'communion', although perhaps less importantly, in the technical senses defined by the rubrics and canons of the institution (the Church of England, in our case) of which we are always an uneasy part - but a part, nonetheless, of the wider body of Christ, in ways that sustain and enrich and challenge us (as well as vice versa). But is what I've described, still, a fragment of something good and true and life-giving? Is it a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where all is finally gathered together and made good? Is it a remembrance of Jesus' life and death and resurrection, and also of those fragments of eucharistic community that made up 'ordinary time' in our neighbourhood? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Doing eucharistic theology in lockdown (2): what we might be discovering

What, then, remains? Julie Gittoes' wonderfully rich, reflective, heart-full and wise article in this week's Church Times describes, after Daniel Hardy, "the eucharist as a gathered interval in the scattered life of the Church". What might we discover, she asks, if we find ourselves "inhabit[ing] an interval that is longer than a day or a week - an interval of extended scattering as we anticipate the feast?"

We might just possibly, she suggests, develop both a deepened attentiveness to Scripture, and a new creativity in faithful improvisation:

On Scripture: "As our homes become more keenly places of prayer, study, and devotion, might our hearts burn within us as we keep going, knowing that one day we will gather to break bread and know the nearness of our risen Lord with us?"

On improvisation: "Might we still be able to live “eucharistically” and creatively in the fast? Perhaps this interval reveals the power of the sacrament: the space where we weave the eucharist into the daily life, and thereby transform it. The scattered Church thus continues to live and move, pray and serve, breath by breath — albeit over a longer and more difficult interval."

Julie's insights chime profoundly with the gifts of fasting I explored in Part 4 of this reflection:
  • time to expose our deep desires, needs & fragilities, our drives & addictions
  • stripping back our defences, including our sense of 'usefulness'
  • solidarity with others, hungering and thirsting in many different ways
  • deepening our capacity for gratitude
  • opening space to begin to re-imagine the world
These are, I think, potentially gifts that might not find such fertile soil within us, if it were easy for some of us - the privileged, connected ones - to simply consume something that looked and sounded very similar to what we have been used to in pre-COVID 'ordinary time', without needing to acknowledge the full depth of the current rupture in our eucharistic ecology.

But I may be wrong.

Jesus, beloved friend, we thank you:
for listening to us along the way,
for coming in to be with us here,
and for making yourself known
in the breaking of bread.
Stay with us, we pray,
and when the day comes,
go ahead of us into the world:
that we might see your presence and hear your voice
in loved ones, in strangers, in neighbours all,
as we join together to cry:
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

[from our 'Easter Sunday evening' liturgy, 'Journeying with Jesus on the Emmaus Road']

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Resurrection deferred? COVID-19 & the disruption in liturgical time (4)

In Parts 1 to 3, I've explored (with a lot of help from theologian of trauma Shelly Rambo) the ways in which the collective trauma of COVID-19 has disrupted, ruptured even, our sense of time, personally but also both politically and liturgically. Politically, that means that we should be suspicious of any signs of forgetfulness of COVID-19's 'pre-history' ('life before'), and cautious of claims and ambitions for 'life after'. Liturgically and theologically, I've suggested (in Part 2) that we find ourselves in an extended 'Holy Saturday time' and (in Part 3), if Easter has dawned or is dawning, it is dawning slowly, quietly, gently - in a gradual, fragmentary, piecemeal way. 

Those of us who are Christians are shaped by the story of Jesus and his friends, shaped by the rhythms of the liturgical year that tell and embody that story, shaped by time unfolding not in a linear direction, but in a layered, cyclical (or spiral) journey. COVID-19 dramatically - traumatically - disrupts these rhythms. Or better, exposes the way in which they are always disrupted, the way in which these rhythms always shape us imperfectly, always leave excess, remainder. Because these liturgical rhythms point to a one-off, original story (Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection, and the beginnings of the church), but also anticipate a future (the coming of God's kin-dom in its fullness, the gathering up and renewing of all creation), and interact with the present, it is possible (if maybe hard to get our heads round) for it to be both Holy Saturday and Eastertide simultaneously, for liturgical seasons to be both now and not yet, over but also remaining.

At the end of Part 3, I underlined Shelly Rambo's suggestion that we are called to the twin tasks, moved by the Spirit, of 'tracking the undertow' (discerning the suffering and violence that 'does not rise to the surface') and 'sensing life' (attempting to move toward a form of life as remaining, in love, without any confident knowledge of the shape of that life).

Lenten temptations

'Honestly hadn't planned on giving up quite this much for Lent'. The words of a tweet that rapidly went viral for its simplicity and its resonance for so many of us. Yes, if Lent is par excellence a time of deprivation - albeit normally self-imposed - then this year's Lent has been, as many have observed, 'the lentiest Lent ever'. Some way beyond refraining from chocolate for 40 days, we have had to give up travelling, restrict ourselves to one walk/run/cycle a day, deal with shortages and rationing of loo rolls, pasta, flour and eggs in the shops, resist any kind of physical contact with anyone who doesn't live in our own household, and - perhaps most dramatically - we're not able to gather for reason: not to work together, not to play together, not to eat together, not to pray, or worship, or share communion together. 'Together, apart' has been the challenge, and glimmer of possibility - but 'together, apart' has meant losing so much of what we have, for all of our lives, taken for granted - for all of us, but felt in sharp and particular ways for those of us who are immersed in the work of neighbourhood-based community-building, or in the life of a church community, or both.

It's a rather dramatic irony that, just as the COVID-19 crisis hit the UK, I was just 2 or 3 days away from finishing a first full draft of a book I'm co-writing with Ruth Harley, 'Being Interrupted: re-imagining the church's mission from the outside, in'. And then 'the Great Interruption' happened, 'business as usual' shuddered to a stop, 'being church' and building community both needed radically re-shaping, my wife Janey and I had to start juggling our jobs and suddenly being full-time parents / home-schoolers for our two kids, and my mental capacity to think coherent thoughts, let alone get them down on a computer screen, deserted me. By the end of this second week of the 'school holidays' (whatever that means, currently), it might just be possible that the much-heralded 'space to read, write and reflect' that many were promising early on in this crisis, could become an element of the new normal of my life and work - and that the book might, somewhat belatedly, get finished. And although I'm currently wrestling with the knotty question of how on earth I'm going to finish a book on the ways in which the life and mission of the church might be disrupted and transformed by practising a radical receptivity to the gifts and challenges of interruptions that come from 'the outside', without totally re-writing it in the light of this 'Great Interruption' - nevertheless I have a hunch that at least some of what we've written so far will still hold water.

One of the moments in the book that feels particularly relevant right now is our exploration of the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness - the gospel reading always set for the First Sunday in Lent - read with the help of the bishop, missionary and author of The Christlike God, John V Taylor. Taylor suggests that the three temptations the 'tempter/devil/Satan' puts to Jesus (turn stones into bread, throw himself of the Temple, and bow down before the tempter in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world) are temptations to three kinds of power: the power of the provider, the power of the performer, and the power of the possessor. It's significant that these temptations occur in the context of questioning Jesus' identity ('if you are the Son of God...'), immediately after that identity has been affirmed overwhelmingly in Jesus' baptism (the voice from heaven announcing, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased').

Now I'm not interested in criticising clergy colleagues for decisions they have made from the best of intentions, in the midst of a crisis that has thrown pretty much everything that has been familiar, stable and secure for all of us up in the air. But I am interested in observing some of the rapid, apparently instinctive, responses that have prevailed in this first phase of COVID-19 'lockdown', both at the level of local churches and neighbourhoods, and at wider, structural levels.

One of the earliest and most serious concerns that 'lockdown' raised was for those who risked going hungry. From self-isolation meaning people couldn't get to the shops to buy food, to the ongoing failures of the Universal Credit system meaning that people didn't have the money to buy food, to the shutting down of schools that have - criminally, for our society - played a critical role in feeding many of our children, to the closure of many of the places (in our neighbourhood, particularly) where neighbours usually come and eat together, making sure everyone gets fed has become a top priority of these times. While locally we have for years resisted setting up a foodbank, in the last few weeks we've been working more closely and frequently with our local foodbank than ever before, including doing significant numbers of home-delivery food parcels each week. But the power of the provider, the power entangled with feeding the hungry, is seductive, addictive. It can give us a buzz, make us feel good about ourselves, to feed others. And then we can find ourselves needing that buzz, needing people to be hungry so that we're needed to feed them. And as well as what that does to us, it also locks our neighbours into the one-dimensional identity of 'hungry person', 'needy person', 'vulnerable person' - eclipsing any other part of their identity, story, gifts that they might have to offer.

Providing isn't just about feeding people, of course. And getting into the 'feeding business' isn't just about providing. I've been struck by the temptation among many food providers (and we've not been exempt from it here) to tell the world how many people they're feeding, or even to share photos of food handovers, with the faces of smiling, grateful recipients. This slips into what John Taylor calls the power of the performer: the power and status that comes with being seen, with being appreciated, with impressing or persuading others through what we're doing. The sudden explosion in live-streamed church services, the excitement for some of seeing viewing figures many times bigger than their usual Sunday congregation, the subtle - and not so subtle - forms of public competitiveness between clergy as 'church-hopping' is made as easy as switching between TV programmes, coupled with an insecurity (I'll own up to this one) that wonders, in the face of what everyone else is apparently doing, producing, recording, broadcasting: 'am I doing enough?' And where the power of the provider defines recipients in terms of their hunger, the big danger of the power of the performer is that it makes worshippers little more than consumers. On a small scale, experiments with more interactive online communication tools (we've been using Zoom for a weekly Sunday 'coffee and chat' time, as well as for a number of regular meetings) can allow for a little more participation, but on the whole the sudden shift to online worship has played to the strengths of those who already focused on worship's performative dimension, and has shoved many others, willingly or unwillingly, in that direction.

Which edges us towards the third temptation: to the power of the possessor; the instinct or desire or need to control, to manage, to set the ground rules and police the boundaries. More often than not, it should be acknowledged, from the best of intentions (just as with the other two temptations). For the protection of the vulnerable, or in the interests of good order, continuity, orthodoxy or fairness. This power, like the others, has its valid place. But can all too often over-reach itself, expand beyond its proper and limited territory into colonisation and empire-building; seduce those who wield it into believing they are acting for the best when in fact they are acting out of conscious or unselfconscious self-interest, self-aggrandisement, self-preservation or self-defence; and reduce the agency, creativity and identity of those on the receiving end to that of 'operatives' to be managed, 'subjects' to be governed, 'mavericks' to be kept in line. Often this temptation is more visible on large, societal scales, although it is of course present at all levels of human structures. Look at the local authorities, trying to 'harness' the goodwill of neighbours and the energy of mutual aid groups with a level of strategic deployment and coordination, not to mention safeguarding processes - but which simultaneously wring out every drop of spontaneity, reciprocity, creativity and wild, loving neighbourliness from their newly-recruited army of 'volunteers'. Look at those within the Church of England - some near the top of the hierarchies, but also many self-appointed authorities among colleagues on the same level - hurrying to clarify, delineate and argue over what is and isn't acceptable in terms of consecration and reception of the bread and wine of communion, in this sudden new age of domestic isolation and online worship 'gatherings'. The driving concern, of course, is about how we 'hold together' in this time when we are in many ways more separated from each other than we have ever been. The anxiety is not just for good order in the present, and continuity with the past, but also for what unfortunate innovations might remain the other end of 'lockdown', from this period where all of us have quite literally been making it up as we go along. But, as Jonny Baker has pointed out in vivid terms, the danger is that these anxieties and concerns go hand in hand with hierarchical, clericalist impulses to hang on to control, closing off the possibilities that creative initiatives, subversive experiments, bubbling up in homes and local communities might themselves be the work of the Spirit.

Before we move on, I need to try and underline a few key points as clearly as possible.

Firstly, these three responses, instincts towards power, all have their proper place. Wielded carefully, appropriately, within minimal limits, they can play important roles in sustaining, nurturing, and safeguarding the wellbeing and flourishing of others. They are not in themselves bad.

Secondly, when we are under pressure and stress, when we're wrestling with anxiety or insecurity about who we are and our place in the world, when we're in the midst of a crisis - internal or external or both - and when we're feeling 'out of control', these responses are so common, widespread, familiar, we might even call them 'natural'. At the very least, they're perfectly understandable responses in the midst of stress, anxiety and crisis.

But thirdly, such responses - especially in the midst of stress, anxiety and crisis - can be profoundly damaging to both the wielder of the power and those on the receiving end, and profoundly distorting of the relationship between us.

And lastly, if distortion and damage can happen when these forms of power emerge at the level of individual relationships, when they manifest themselves in relationships embedded in systems - organisations, institutions, societies, governments, and yes, churches of course - they seem to take on a life of their own that multiplies the distortion and damage they can do - the seemingly invincible power of what Walter Wink calls 'the powers'.

Lenten fasting

So what can we do?

In 'Being Interrupted', Ruth and I argue that the best way to resist these temptations to power is to open ourselves to, and to find ways to intentionally practise, ways of opening ourselves to the interruptions and disruptions of our neighbours - both human and non-human - especially those neighbours who have been pushed to the edges of power: through sexism, racism and class inequality, as well as the ageism that minimizes the contributions of children, and the anthropocentrism that places humans 'over and above' the rest of creation.

But many aspects of our COVID-19 'lockdown' disrupt precisely the kind of 'radically receptive' habits that we've been learning in Hodge Hill over the last few years: discovering and creating 'bumping spaces' where neighbours can encounter each other across our multiple differences; encouraging neighbours to identify, draw out and share their passions, gifts and skills; finding neighbours who are natural 'connectors' and 'hosts', and supporting them to put on 'street events' to bring neighbours together, usually over a bring-and-share feast of food; nurturing church gatherings that 'hear to speech' the stories of encounter-in-the-world that have challenged and changed us, and that encourage the agency and leadership of children within our midst... and so on. COVID-19 is depriving us of so many of those spaces of encounter, possibility, transformation and life.

In so many ways, the desert of Lent continues, this far side of Easter.

And I'm pretty sure Lent still has wisdom to offer us - the wisdom of fasting.

Fasting - as our Muslim friends and neighbours know much better than many of us Christians - needs time to start 'working'. Given time, fasting can expose to us our deep desires, needs and fragilities, our drives and addictions - those things which, as Shelly Rambo put it, do not normally rise to the surface. And when they emerge, we can begin to face them, wrestle with them, seek out the help we need to deprive them of their power. What is it, in us, that needs to be providing, performing, or possessing? Where does that come from? How does it distort our relationships, and our own sense of identity? What might we do about it? We need Lent to last longer this year - Lent will last longer this year - for us to begin to wrestle with these hard questions about ourselves, both individually and corporately.

Fasting strips us back to bare minimum, strips of our normal layers of defences. This is a second, but entangled, point with the first one. Where normally we've relied on providing, performing and/or possessing to secure our identity, our status, the 'stripping away' of fasting - when we simply cannot do those things - leaves us, naked, with a sense of our own unproductiveness, uselessness. Many, many people in the world don't need any reminding of their unproductiveness, their apparent 'uselessness' - our social structures and systems, our political rhetoric, do that reminding for them on a daily basis. But for some of us, the reminder is necessary, and timely. I speak as someone involved in professions and institutions that can, to put it mildly, at times be a bit full of ourselves. The Church (with a capital 'C'), the ordained priesthood - and also, to a lesser extent, academics and community-builders. Our incapacity, in the face of what feel like our responsibilities, can leave us feeling guilty, inadequate - and can exacerbate the anxieties that we're living with already. But it can also open up possibilities for discovery, for revelation.

One of the meditations of Holy Week that struck me most were these reflections on Twitter from a priest-colleague, Revd Jody Stowell:

"I'm thinking about what it means for priests to learn to be on the sidelines. To be hidden. To be unneeded. To be 'useless'. To only do 'priest' in the unseen places. There's a lot of high feelings around about being unable to do the things we think make us priests. I think Maundy Thursday is a great day to be thinking about this. As we go with Jesus to put down the identities we have wrapped around ourselves. And find who we are in the scandal of failure. I am reminded that to Judas, Jesus at this moment in the story was a disappointment. Perhaps we too need to live in this space. To disappoint ourselves in what we had hoped to be. To lay down the glorious images we have of ourselves as triumphant saviours, even if we've wrapped that up in the symbolism of servant. And perhaps see that the way to be priest in a world of COVID19, is to become small, go to our room, shut the door, and pray to our Father in heaven."
Jody's words here feel profoundly resonant with what the disciplines of an extended 'Lent' mean for me.

A third insight that fasting nurtures in us is that of solidarity. Dislodged from our pedestals of power, deprived of some of the aspects of life we usually take for granted, hungering for things that would normally be readily available, those of us who are used to layers of invisible privilege - and here I'm not just talking about ordained priesthood, but also the privileges of living in the global North, or being white, or middle-class, or able-bodied - find ourselves, suddenly, experiencing some of the deprivations and limitations that for countless others is part of 'normal life'. This is, of course, a limited solidarity: many of us still have an array of choices we can make, freedoms we can enjoy, 'buffers' or 'safety nets' to catch us when we fall, that mean our experience is substantially more privileged than many of our neighbours. But in the enforced limitations that we experience, there is an invitation to a deeper solidarity that we can choose to enter. Through imaginative empathy, partly. But also through taking the time to read, and listen, to the stories of others - to get in touch with friends and neighbours, close to home and across the world, and spend time in conversation with them - that maybe we wouldn't normally have time for.

Fourthly, fasting can also deepen in us that awareness, that capacity to notice, that grows into a conscious gratitude for the gifts - both extraordinary and ordinary - of our daily lives. Those things we have taken for granted, those things that we've realised are not universally accessible, not evenly distributed in our world. Rarely have I found the line in the Lord's Prayer, 'give us this day our daily bread', more meaningful than in the last few weeks, when I've gone to the shops not knowing what I'll be able to come home with. Rarely have I been more careful and creative with the 'remains' (there's that word again) in the fridge and the kitchen cupboards. Rarely have I enjoyed meal-times more than at the moment. And equally, the gratitude that has grown in me for the opportunity to go for a daily walk with my family, and for dry, sunny days, and for the spaces of green and often hidden beauty in our surrounding neighbourhood. Not to mention the quiet creativity of neighbours - the path-menders, the tree-house-builders, the stone-decorators, the medicine-bringers, the seed-sharers, and many more... These have been just a few of the little causes for thanksgiving - life, more or less clearly 'sensed', as Shelly Rambo puts it - in these strange, lockdown days. And while my world has shrunk in so many ways, I'm noticing the ways in which my heart is, gently, expanding.

The fifth and last insight I'm noticing from this fasting that has been forced upon us, is perhaps most tentative as yet, but needs at least registering here. Just as Shelly Rambo urges us, with the persistent Spirit, to 'track the undertow', to seek to discern those things which tend to remain below the surface, so the experience of fasting, of a deepened self-knowledge, and of discovering a sense of solidarity with those who have been more permanently excluded, begin to nudge us towards seeking - only with and not for our more-excluded neighbours - to re-imagine and re-shape the structuring of our world - with all the caution about 're-' words that Rambo has already urged on us.

The temptations of Lent, and the gradual gifts that it begins to yield, feel like they might be pretty widespread in our 'locked down' world right now. For some of us Christians, they come to a particular focus in the question of whether, when, and how we might share communion together. I'm going to try and tackle that question, in the light of what I've already written in Parts 1 to 4, in the next instalment of this blog...