Church in a time of pandemic

Church in a time of pandemic

So – this Pastor in Rīga has (temporarily) become Chaplain in Oslo. In the spring it was even more complicated, as I did 2 months as a Locum for St. Edmund’s Anglican Chaplaincy in Oslo while I was physically in Latvia – a ministry carried out entirely via Zoom, email, telephony and Skype. It was certainly the first time I had led a service in alb, stole, pectoral cross and crocs – one of the clichés of pandemic worship, of course.

And then arriving here in person was truly a unique experience. The building was much as I had imagined it, but people were both familiar and unfamiliar, as the image you see on a screen is not really representative of a three dimensional person. Some people were taller than I expected, others shorter – but all were recognisable, and all very welcoming.

St Edmund’s in Oslo

But it has been a “steep learning curve” (is that my cliché quota used up for this post?) in terms of being a functioning cleric in person, rather than in a home environment. A bit of background: for the last months many of us in Latvia who have family abroad have been living with two realities. In Latvia the COVID-19 pandemic has barely touched us compared with most of the rest of Europe. As I write, there has been an uptick in cases, due to an overly optimistic experiment in restarting the hockey season (this involves teams travelling to and from Latvia, Russia, Belarus and Finland. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to be something of a flaw in this plan). And sure enough, players have been testing positive, matches have been cancelled and the future of the season is in doubt. At the same time, one of the worldwide phenomena has just manifested itself – an outbreak at a meat processing plant. But still and all, Latvia has the lowest infection rate in Europe at the time of writing, and life continues pretty normally (except for frustrated hockey fans, of whom there are many. Really very many.)

At the same time, our family in the UK have been enduring lockdowns, living in isolation, hearing mixed messages from an increasingly heavily criticised government, with daily infection rates now rising into the thousands. We have talked and video called, written messages and sent little gifts to each other, anxious not to lose touch, faced suddenly with the prospect of not knowing when we will be able to meet again.

But Norway is in a sort of in-between space. Infection rates here are rising, but there is no lockdown, and no very great measures to contain the outbreak, except for closures in kindergartens and schools directly affected, and advice to wear masks on public transport. 1 metre distancing is recommended, and mostly observed, and there is ‘anti bac’ everywhere.

However, St Edmund’s have really risen to the challenge, with very careful precautions and much thought having been given to following the advice given both by the Norwegian health authorities and the Diocese in Europe of the Church of England. No greeting of peace, of course, no contact, no possibility of handing a book to children to read, no coffee hour, only 40 people in church and so on. It is at once comforting to know how much care has gone into to making the church a safe space, and confining to know that much of the action that makes church what it is, is now inevitably forbidden. The small instinctive gestures, the sharing of communion in bread and wine, the hug for a friend who is hurting – all this is gone, and we are a church gripped in safety and in confinement. The sculpture below, one of a stunning series in a local park, spoke to me vividly of this duality of caring and restraint.

One of the remarkable and emotionally charged statues in the Vigelandsparken

Today a discussion (that I could only follow in part) at the Norwegian Christian Council echoed concerns raised in St. Edmund’s and more widely in the Church throughout the world, and led to these thoughts – how are we to be church in 2020? How are we to show God’s love in a time of pandemic? What to do about the people who are isolated, not just by government restrictions, but by their own (understandable) reluctance, even fear, to venture out into a city or a village made strange and seemingly unsafe? How do we reach out to people who have withdrawn? How do we comfort the sick and the bereaved when even funerals are restricted, and when we can’t touch a weeping child, or stroke a dying person’s head? For Anglicans in Europe more than most, what to do about the rituals that sustain the church, but which demand a Bishop’s presence – like confirmation or ordination – when the Bishop is stuck hundreds of kilometres away, and can’t travel because of quarantine or self-isolation regulations?

A beautiful window in St. Edmund’s Church

Loving our neighbour in these times requires us to keep our neighbour safe, and therefore Christians surely must do the best to observe whatever regulations medical experts and governments guided by them recommend, or, indeed, legislate into being. Of course, online worship, Bible studies, lectures, seminars and so on have been extraordinarily valuable during this time – for those who are able to access them, which is by no means everyone. Indeed, many churches have found that people who do not normally attend church do find their way into online activities. The Lutheran church I belong to in Latvia has found that several thousand people have watched our services on YouTube, and an interesting series of meditations by a pastor online regularly attracts 250 people on a weekday evening – some of them in Latvia, but others in Iceland, Chile, Canada, the UK and so on. This has been a completely unforeseen blessing.

But the reality is that we, followers of Christ and carriers of our crosses at Jesus’ invitation, face some real and difficult challenges in the years to come. It is no good thinking that when COVID-19 passes, we will return to where we were in February 2020. That applies to so much in our world, whether we are talking about the tourism industry, methods of working, education – whatever. COVID-19 has struck the poor and the hungry harder than others, and will continue to do so, according to the World Bank. It has also disproportionately affected people of Black and Minority Ethnic origin. It has devastated populations of elderly folk in nursing homes. All of this poses difficult questions to society, and to churches and their members.

Meanwhile, congregations have lost some people and gained others, certainly lost income, some to a catastrophic level; and preaching the Gospel to a world riven by a polarisation that is political and religious (and a mixture of the two – think of the close relationship between the religious right and Trump-supporting Republicans) is demanding a reorientation. I would say that we must, as Christians, make another attempt to heal divisions, and not to see us and others as followers of diverse traditions, but simply to gather around the Cross, and to see where God wants us to go next. The old, humanly constructed certainties and barriers must go;

The rebuilding of Norwegian government building following the attack in 2011 has involved the demolition of much that was damaged

and a renewed Church, challenging the status quo and living alongside the poor and dispossessed, must emerge. Our world has been hit by the equivalent of a bomb, and the debris has to be cleared away in order for us to see how to rebuild. Rules and Canon Laws must change, or be broken; risks must be taken, and arms – physical and metaphorical – must be opened wide. Otherwise, I fear that we are lost. John Bell, as so often, captures my thoughts and feelings on this autumnal evening in Oslo.

Jesus Christ is waiting,
Waiting in the streets;
No one is his neighbour,
All alone he eats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am lonely too.
Make me, friend or stranger,
Fit to wait on you.

Jesus Christ is raging,
Raging in the streets,
Where injustice spirals
And real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too.
In the Kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with you.

Jesus Christ is healing,
Healing in the streets;
Curing those who suffer,
Touching those he greets.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I have pity too.
Let my care be active,
Healing just like you.

Jesus Christ is dancing,
Dancing in the streets,
Where each sign of hatred
He, with love, defeats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I should triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard
Let me dance with you.

Jesus Christ is calling,
Calling in the streets,
”Who will join my journey?
I will guide their feet.”
Listen, Lord Jesus,
Let my fears be few.
Walk one step before me;
I will follow you.

©1988  WGRG, Iona Community, Govan, Glasgow G51 3UU, Scotland