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']





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