I remember a phrase often used by the bishop who ordained me priest well over thirty years ago. It related to the utter importance of worship as the duty and the joy of the church, as well as something offered in fulfilment of a deep human need. It reminded us that worship is not simply about feeling good, or seeking fellowship but most profoundly about making God known. The phrase was this – “a God unworshipped is a God unknown“.
That phrase keeps haunting me in these extraordinary and painful days, when public liturgical worship is simply not happening in a manner that is almost without precedent in our Christian history.
Challenging questions ‘out there’
We can of course worship and pray privately, we can rejoice in the potential of live streaming and the possibilities offered by technology, we can remind ourselves that in more normal times we often over – associate the worship of God with our heritage of buildings. However, having said all those things, there are undoubtedly important and challenging questions ‘out there’ during the current pandemic.
How is God powerfully and effectively made known in the midst of all this?
When public worship, normal sacramental habits, and even certain everyday human tactile expressions of friendship and concern are in suspense, how do we best know the God who especially comes among us when we gather the people and break the bread?
As someone who has long proclaimed that the liturgy is among our greatest tools in evangelism, I find myself asking fresh questions about how we can in these times authentically be the church in a manner that in over three decades of ordained ministry I never imagined would be the case.
And, while the great priority of the present time must be to promote urgently the public health and safety of our people, I do allow myself to wonder how all of this shock and privation will affect our ecclesial self – understanding in a context when we do again begin to reassemble physically, although perhaps required to adhere to certain disciplines of social distancing for quite some time to come.
Without stretching the analogy too far, will we be somewhat like the Old Testament people of God who returned from exile in Babylon and as they rebuilt their lives also found themselves transformed.
Will some of the technological initiatives of recent times continue and become a mainstream context for worship?
Will our relationship with beloved buildings become a little looser?
Will we have learned habits and even instincts of distancing which will affect aspects of the intimacy we associate with sacramental worship together?
Will the enforced loss of churchgoing habits affect how people make their choices in the future; will they have a new sense of the value of what has been temporarily taken away from them …or ( dare I say?) will some people conclude that when they had to stop going to church they didn’t actually miss it (or indeed some of the ‘politics’ that can sometimes accompany parochial life) hugely?
Do not let us fall
As one of those rare creatures who for a combination of reasons almost never missed a Sunday in church from the day of my birth until this present crisis, I find myself engaging in all sorts of surprising self – examination that would never previously have occurred to me … And in all of this reflection, I have not even begun to address the practical financial consequences which the diocese is bound to face. Nevertheless, all things considered, I find myself praying repeatedly these days a phrase semi – derived from the Lord’s Prayer … ‘Do not let us fall when we are tested’.
It may well be the case that historians will conclude that the 2020 pandemic was one of those historic crises and testing moments when people of faith in fact demonstrated precisely what that faith was worth.
At the time of writing I have, of course, no idea how current regulations may begin to adjust or otherwise in early May, and in mentioning now a few practical things I do not want in any way to imply that the chief priority is other than care for the sick and anxious, and fervent prayer for those who are on the frontline.
- Confirmations are major moments in the lives of individuals and of families and I am often asked about my future plans for them. Much will depend upon the nature of the easing of restrictions and the degree of social distancing still required going forward. There will also be a need to have adequate time to complete the preparation of candidates. Some parishes may prefer to hold things over until next year; I may try to offer a number of confirmations for appropriate clusters of parishes late in the present year.
- The institution of the Reverend Edna Wakely in Castlecomer was scheduled for 24 May. This is a very tough situation both for her and for the parish and I have yet to determine whether it will be possible even to have a ceremony to carry out the necessary legalities in the presence of a few witnesses around that date
- ‘Easter’ Vestries can only be held once conditions permit and when it has been possible to resume public services and to give two Sundays notice of them. Meanwhile current members and parish officers continue to discharge their duties as is appropriate
- My road tour of the 150 churches due to start on May 22 and to which I was so greatly looking forward must probably become a matter for reconsideration and possible rescheduling when circumstances allow it.
Hearts go out to those disrupted by current anxieties or bereaved
Our hearts go out to all those whose lives are hugely disrupted by current anxieties, whether those facing the Leaving Certificate, or those who have had to put wedding plans on hold…along with many others.
In particular my thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones from this life without even the consolation of a ‘normal ‘ Irish funeral which is so much part of our culture and of how we express solidarity with the bereaved. Personally I am conscious of several funerals of distinguished contributors to the life of this diocese which I might have attended in recent weeks, and I know how clergy have been working hard in all situations of bereavement to give a sense of comfort and dignity (and in many case the prospect of future memorial services ).
As I think of those we have lost from ministry in the diocese of late I think of David Smyth of Waterford – a man of many talents, a serving Diocesan Reader and husband of Christine who is one of our cherished priests. I think of Des Hall of Lismore Union, one of nature’s true gentlemen who served faithfully as a Reader for many years. And I also send our sympathy to the Reverend Nicola Halford, bereaved by the death of her father in Sallins, Co Kildare.
But again I pray with some poignancy – ‘ do not let us fall when we are tested’…Or forget that it is still Eastertide
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory