It has been six months since we were propelled into the new world that we are living in at this time. Restrictions on gathering, imposed because of the rapid and worrying spread of the corona virus, meant that we had to cease, with very little notice, all of our in person gatherings.
The time since then can be characterised by two important words. One word is Challenge. It has been a challenging time for many. The challenge of needing to find ways to continue worship, in different ways from what we had long been used to. The challenge of knowing that people continued to be hungry, living below the poverty line, some without a place to shelter each night—and that our usual ways of serving them needed to be drastically changed.
The challenge of not being able to meet in person for a cup of tea and a good chat, and the impact that this has on our own mental health. The challenge of being distant from family, unable to visit them, or have them visit us.
The second word that characterises this time is Innovation. In each of these areas, we have seen great examples of innovation happening, right within our own communities of faith. We have adopted online worship—by ZOOM, by Facebook, by YouTube; we have set up personal sanctuaries in our homes, and made use of worship resources prepared and delivered directly to us, whether by email or by post or by hand.
We have seen innovation in the ways that take-away meals have been prepared and distributed to those who are hungry, and how we have found the telephone and the internet to be wonderful tools to ensure that we remain in contact with all of our friends and family members.
The ways we have met the challenges and created innovative responses is clearly seen in the series of videos with people in our Presbytery that have been made for our two online Presbytery meetings this year.
Our sense, as Presbytery leaders, is that the health of our churches is strong; the commitment of our people is deep; the expertise of our ministry leadership—lay and ordained alike—is growing; and the possibilities for the future remain hopeful. Hard work, prayerful reflection, compassionate concern, and openness to exploration are the hallmarks of our Congregations.
Our Synod leadership switched into a strongly collaborative mode from the very start of this period. Weekly meetings with leaders from Presbyteries right around the Synod, and regular guidance notes which provided links to key government and health resources, were immensely helpful in the early months. The ongoing collaboration of our leadership has been of benefit to every Presbytery and every Congregation.
We have been able to maintain a community of learning amongst those who had started the Mission Shaped Ministry course last year, and a good cohort of people has just completed that course. We are encouraged, also, to see the establishment of a Community of Practice amongst people from the Inner North Congregations, and we pray that this group will share hopes, see visions, and implement plans, for a renewed witness on the inner north area of Canberra.
Of course, we are acutely aware that pandemic struck so soon after so many communities were just beginning the slow and painful task of regathering their lives after the devastation of the bushfires. People were looking to rebuild their lives and, in some cases, their homes; the pandemic struck deep into this enterprise. The pain and despair of many communities is something that we have been working together to address. It has been made more complicated by the pandemic. But it is very heartening to see how organisations, congregations, fellowship groups, and individuals have all pitched in to assist.
So, we rejoice in these signs of robust life across our Presbytery. We hope that you share our sense of confidence in what lies ahead, because of the evidence of how we have responded over the past six months.
We encourage you to pray with us for people caught in painful traumatic memories; for people offering assistance and support to those who have been impacted by fires; for communities where the road to recovery is long and slow.
Pray too for those for whom the past months have brought new experiences of feeling isolated and lonely, depressed and discouraged or brought loss and grief. Pray that the healing power of the Spirit may renew and refresh all those who are suffering in some way and reassure them that they are the beloved children of God.
We encourage you to maintain hope, to continue offering compassionate care to the people of your faith community and to your local community. We challenge you to seek new ways of sharing the Gospel, seeking to offer fresh expressions of faith to those in the places where we each live and work.
We are grateful for all the signs of faithfulness and hope in our midst, and we look forward with confidence to discovering who God is calling us to be, and what the Spirit is leading us to do, in the days ahead.
Judy McKinlay and Ross Kingham, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul places importance in the role played by the Spirit of God. The word spirit appears 32 times in this letter; many of these refer to the Holy Spirit. Some of those instances appear in the epistle section that is set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Romans 8:26-39.
This section also contains a quotation from scripture (Psalm 44:22, quoted at Rom 8:36). The whole letter is replete with such scripture quotations—it starts with a programmatic citation about the righteous and faith, from Habakkuk 2:4 (at Rom 1:17), and moves through discussions of the power of sin (3:10-18), the relevance of Abraham (4:7-8), a reflection on the story of Adam (5:12-21), and a consideration of some of the Ten Commandments (7:7).
There is a long and complex discussion of the place of the people of Israel alongside the Gentiles within the plan of God (9:1-11:36, where many scripture quotations are included), further discussion on the place of the Gentiles (15:9-12) and a declaration of the importance of proclaiming the good news (15:20-21). Scripture undergirds the whole of Paul’s argument in Romans.
Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (7:6; 8:2, 5–6). The Spirit, in Hebrew Scripture, breathes over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation (Gen 1:1-5), gifts the elders appointed by Moses (Num 11:16-25), anoints the prophets (Deut 34:9, Judges 13:24-25, 2 Sam 23:2) and inspires their pointed words of warning (Isa 61:1, Ezekiel 2:2, 3:12, Joel 2:28-29, Micah 3:8, Zechariah 4:6).
The same Sprit plays an important role in the story of Jesus, especially as Luke tells it, from the conception and birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35), through his commission at his baptism (3:22) and temptation (4:1), his public ministry (Luke 4:14, 18; Acts 10:38), through to his death (Luke 23:46).
The Spirit continues to be creatively active in the subsequent outpouring of gifts at Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4, 17-18, 33) and on through the story of the early followers of Jesus: Peter and John (Acts 4:8, 31), Stephen and others (6:3, 5, 10, 7:55), Phillip (8:17-18, 29, 39), Saul (9:17), Peter (10:19, 44-45, 11:15, 24, 28), Paul and Barnabas (13:2, 4, 9, 52), the council in Jerusalem (15:8, 28), and then in Paul’s continuing travels (16:6-7, 19:6, 21, 20:22-23, 28, 21:4, 11, 28:25).
The Spirit is an essential element in the story that Luke tells. Where does the Spirit fit in Paul’s view of things?
Paul imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (8:14–17, 23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).
Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The groaning of creation is an image that connects clearly and directly with the current times.
The impact of COVID19 evokes groaning as we are surrounded by illness, anxiety, loneliness, and death. But this groaning comes also from the earth herself, groaning under the weight of the damaging misuse and destruction wrought by human beings, erupting out now in the rapid and threatening spread of a tiny, potent killer.
The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (8:26–27). The Spirit is not to take us away from the realities of the life we live; rather, the Spirit engages us wholeheartedly and fully in the life of discipleship. Paul’s explanation is that the Spirit facilitates the way that we reach out to God, seeking help, for others and for our world. The Spirit intercedes with “sighs too deep for words”. An empathic companionships in the midst of the groanings.
Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries. The sighs of the Spirit are manifested in the gifts of discipleship.
The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in chapters 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place.
So, for Paul, the Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The Spirit is not simply an internal, mystical, or ecstatic experience; the Spirit is manifest in practical ways in the lives of disciples. The “sighs too deep for words” are wrapped around the focussed attention that scripture requires from believers. And scripture provides resources for grappling with the very issues about which the Spirit groans and sighs.
(We will look further into the function of scripture in this letter in a later blog.)
Over the past four months, as a society, we have experienced various periods of restrictions: the most severe restrictions in response to the first wave of infections, requiring us to isolate in our homes except for essential matters; then gradual steps in easing those restrictions. And now, in the light of what looks like a second wave, a tightening of restrictions, with perhaps more of that still to come. It has been like a roller coaster ride.
And as a church, we have experienced the change from worshipping and meeting in person, to doing many things by phone, by email, and especially by ZOOM and YouTube. It has been a very significant time of transition—personally challenging, emotionally confronting, and draining of our energy. Yet we are all still moving on in the face of all that we encounter.
In the firm belief that it is helpful for us to keep up with the latest scientific research on COVID-19, I have been collating information about various matters that have drawn the attention of researchers, and produced clear guidance for how we function as we live with the ongoing reality of COVID-19.
A. On the importance of air circulation
Recently, 239 scientists from 32 different countries and many different areas of science (including virology, aerosol physics and epidemiology) penned an open letter urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to change their advice relating to the ways that the corona virus spreads. “We ignore COVID-19 airborne spread indoors at our peril,” the scientists wrote.
In summary, the scientists who signed the letter have recommended three key ways to mitigate the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19:
Ventilation (maximise clean outdoor air, minimise recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes
Airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights
Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings
These are practical and can be easily implemented and many are not costly.
The ABC reports that scientific experts say masks are one of the best ways to stop aerosols in their tracks. “Masks stop the virus-laden aerosols exhaled by an infected person entering the indoor space and also protect others from inhaling it,” Professor Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology said.
Professor Guy Marks, an epidemiologist and respiratory physician at the University of New South Wales, agrees. “If you must spend time in a static environment with a lot of people, consider wearing a mask”, he says.
Physical distancing is insufficient by itself in a crowded, poorly ventilated space where there is rapid air mixing, says aerobiologist Professor Euan Tovey of the University of Sydney. A recent study from an outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt has shown that the best protection from infection in close quarters is a combination of distancing and masks.
However, the type of mask has an effect on protection. While a home-made cotton face mask significantly blocks large droplets, research UK research shows it only blocks a proportion of those tiny aerosolised particles.
Links to specific studies can be found in the article at
C. An overview of what is involved in taking good precautions
The World Health Organisation has recently published an up to date guide for how we minimise the risk of infections spreading, in a paper entitled Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: implications for infection prevention precautions (WHO, 9 July 2020)
To prevent transmission, WHO recommends a comprehensive set of measures including:
Identify suspect cases as quickly as possible, test, and isolate all cases (infected people) in appropriate facilities;
Identify and quarantine all close contacts of infected people and test those who develop symptoms so that they can be isolated if they are infected and require care;
Use fabric masks in specific situations, for example, in public places where there is community transmission and where other prevention measures, such as physical distancing, are not possible;
Use of contact and droplet precautions by health workers caring for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, and use of airborne precautions when aerosol generating procedures are performed;
Continuous use of a medical mask by health workers and caregivers working in all clinical areas, during all routine activities throughout the entire shift;
At all times, practice frequent hand hygiene, physical distancing from others when possible, and respiratory etiquette; avoid crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces with poor ventilation; wear fabric masks when in closed, overcrowded spaces to protect others; and ensure good environmental ventilation in all closed settings and appropriate environmental cleaning and disinfection.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” So the second (extant) letter to the Corinthians ends (2 Cor 13:11-12).
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” is also how Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Cor 6:20), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.
What do we make of this instruction to kiss one another? Many people in churches that I know have interpreted “holy kiss” to mean “warm handshake”—so the “passing of the peace” has been shaking hands with as many people as possible in the Congregation. In some smaller gatherings, even, making sure that you shake hands with everybody present!
Well, not any longer. No more handshakes—not in church, not at the door after the service, not anywhere in society. COVID-19 has put paid to shaking hands for quite some time yet.
Other people have take a more literalist line of interpretation. A kiss means, well, a kiss! If not a lip-to-lip kiss, then, at least, a lip-to-cheek kiss. Yes, I have been in church gatherings where my hairy unshaven cheeks have been kissed. And even, when my hairy-encircled lips have planted a kiss on the cheek of another worshipper. I confess.
But not any longer. No more person-to-person contact; especially not any contact that involves the lips! COVID-19 has put paid to the socially-approved form of public kiss, for quite some time yet—if not forever.
One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate the reference to a “holy kiss” in these five verses, is by referring to a “holy embrace”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance
Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.
This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of our practices during the current situation with COVID-19. The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved. The current situation proscribes any form of physical contact. It is just too risky.
Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.
How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?
Of course, we do not put our heads in the sand. We acknowledge the sense in the guidelines being proclaimed across society. We listen to those with expertise in infectious diseases and medicine. We refrain from physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. No handshakes. We look for alternatives to signify that we are greeting one another.
We aren’t yet meeting in person for worship. It will be some time before most Congregations are able to do this. But when we eventually do begin to worship in person, and it comes time to pass the peace, we might face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.
Another option would be to clasp our hands together and place them in front of our chest, in the “praying position”, and then, as we face each other, bow in greeting.
A third option—one perhaps only utilised in a very distinctive liturgical setting—could be to “bump elbows”, using the recommended social alternative to “shaking hands”. But that option would need to be employed with care! And it may not be to everybody’s liking, to be sure.
Which brings me to singing. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!”, the psalmist instructs us (Psalms 66:1, 95:1-2, 98:4, 6, 100:1). Sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, an early Christian writer exhorts (Col 3:16). “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, another letter writer directs (Eph 5:18-20).
So how do we interpret these passages? Do we adopt the same literalist approach—the Bible says we must worship, the Bible says we must song, so that’s what we must do! (Yes, I have heard this said, even in current times.) That is not really a satisfactory approach.
Of course, the same dilemma confronts us here. Just as direct physical contact is not advised in the current pandemic situation, so singing in a group of people is also deemed to be out of order, in the understanding of health professional and medical advisors.
Research clearly indicates that singing contributes to the spread of infectious diseases. Singing spreads droplets in aerosols which are expelled from a person’s mouth as they sing. They can carry the virus a significant distance and remain suspended in the air for some time after they have been expelled from a person’s mouth. A cloth mask is unlikely to be enough to provide protection as people sing together. This article canvasses the issues:
So in the case of singing, as with physical touch, we need reinterpret our scripture in keeping with what we know about the spread of infectious diseases. We might have to be content with listening to a recording or watching a video of a favourite hymn or song being sung. One suggestion I have seen is to invite people to listen, then to share with a couple of other people what you have heard, what has connected with you, as you listen.
Another suggestion is to invite people to tap into their own wells of creativity, and after listening to the song, write or draw their own response. That could be in the form of a prayer, a modern psalm, an impressionistic artwork, a poem, a sketch drawing. The possibilities are endless.
There’s another central aspect of worship that will need significant attention and careful consideration in the time ahead. Before we actually start meeting in person for worship, a decision will need to be made, in each local community of faith, with regard to holy communion.
We know that any action that involves direct physical contact is risky. We know that multiple touching of the same object is highly risky—it provides many more opportunities for a virus (any virus, not just COVID-19) to be passed from person to person. When we regather for worship, we will not be “passing the offering plate around”; it is too risky.
In the same way, we need to,consider carefully what we do when it comes to offering the bread, passing a plate of bread, drinking from the cup, or passing the small cups.
That’s a matter for future consideration. If anyone has any clear ideas or knows of useful guidelines in this regard, I would love to hear from you!
It has been many months since we have been able to “live as normal”. For some people, the extended period of drought was already providing challenging circumstances last year. Then, for many people, the bushfires came tearing into their lives six months ago. Their lives were turned upside down and that turmoil has continued. Life has not been the same since then.
We watched as the fires spread across many of the regions in our Presbytery, and even threatened the southern suburbs of Canberra. Many, many people have been impacted—in the lives lost, in the destruction of homes and properties, in the fears and anxieties that grew as the fires spread, in the disruptions to the lives and livelihoods of many communities, and as the memories of past experiences swam back into view.
Then we all experienced the horror of watching the early reports of people around the world who were suffering, and some dying, from a new, previously unknown virus. In swift succession, we saw the WHO declare a global pandemic, the death rates in a number of countries rise exponentially, the first cases of death from COVID-19 in our own country, and then our Government issuing orders restricting gatherings.
We have not been able to live “life as normal” during these months of restrictions on gathering. It has been a time of change, and challenge. Many people have learnt new skills, as we began to realise the possibilities that ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other online platforms can provide. Many congregations began gathering-apart through one of these means. At the same time, we have continued to worship and care for one another.
Many of us have lamented the loss of face-to-face meetings. We have not been able to have coffee and catch up with friends, or family. We have not been able to go to our favourite cafes, museums or picnic spots. We have not been able to visit those whose mobility restricts them to their homes or rooms and we have not been able to gather together on Sunday morning, to worship.
It is now clear that the early movement to impose restrictions right across society has helped Australia to have fewer deaths in the pandemic. We are certainly saddened by the deaths that have taken place, and aware of the spread of suffering that has been experienced by those who have had their health impacted significantly because of COVID-19. We are relieved that there has not been more deaths, that we did “flatten the curve”, and that we have “slowed the spread” of the virus.
It is also clear that the restrictions of past weeks have had a heavy economic impact—on individuals and small businesses which have lost their income, as well as on the overall economy of our country. It is clear that political leadership wishes to address this matter, and is doing so by easing restrictions, in a staged process. We need to be mindful of what is now permitted—and what still remains restricted.
It is also clear that this easing of restrictions has kindled flames of hope amongst many people—hope that life can “get back to normal”, hope that “life will be easier”, hope that we can “go back to church”. Every one of us shares those hopes, to a greater of lesser degree. And yet, we know, deep within our hearts, that life will not soon be “back to normal”. Things have changed, and that’s the way they will stay, for some length of time yet.
With regard to the last of these hopes—to “go back to church”—there are some important factors for us to consider. It is not just a matter of sending out the emails, ringing up the folks, opening up the doors, and welcoming people back into the church building. Before we can do that, there will be planning and preparation—and prayerful reflection—that needs to take place.
Leaders of our church, from across every Presbytery, and in the Synod, have been meeting each week for the past ten weeks. This week, the leadership group approved a set of resources which have been prepared to assist each Church Council, as they discuss, plan, and prepare to resume church activities on church property.
Those resources are detailed, comprehensive, and carefully conceived. They will help each of our Church Councils to develop a set of COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in our church. Together, these Safety Plans will provide us with a COVID Safe Roadmap to re-gathering.
We encourage Church Councils to begin by reading through this webpage and discussing together the questions that are posed here. After this, Church Councils can then begin to develop specific COVID Safety Plans, one for each activity taking place in their church property.
We encourage you to go to the website and read these resources. They are comprehensive, so this will take time. Church Councils will need to take that time to give careful consideration to the responsibilities that they have. We need to ensure that we do not rush back into holding activities in our church buildings, before we are certain that we have done all the planning that is required.
We also need to take care to ensure that in all our planning, we prioritise the needs of those who are vulnerable—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, those with chronic medical conditions, people with impaired immune systems, and people aged over 70. Their health and safety needs to be the first consideration in any decision to commence worship gatherings in person.
We cannot simply assume that it would be wise for all of these people (including our Ministers and Pastors) to “come to church” when we start holding worship in person once more. In fact, it most likely is wise that they do not join with those who will be gathering in the church building. We need to plan and prepare with this in mind.
As we move along the path of stages taking society forward, let us be patient and compassionate. We need to be compassionate to one another, ensuring that when we start to gather again in person, all precautions have been taken, and the risks have been minimised as much as we can.
We need, especially, to be compassionate towards those whose vulnerabilities mean that they remain at home, waiting still for that safe place for gathering in church to come. They will need our particular care and attention. This is a central calling for us, as a church, at this time. We need to attend, today and in the months to come, to the hard work that will be required, to ensure that all of our buildings and activities are safe, for everyone who attends.
Further still, we are to be mindful of those who may have begun to make connections with our Congregations through this time of meeting and worshipping differently online, or by other means. We want the arrangements to which we now move also to be inclusive of them and their needs.
And let us be patient with each other; may our frustrations fall away, our anxieties dissipate, as we wait, pray, and prepare. As Daniel Mossfield recently wrote to his Congregation:
“In a culture where people are forced to rush back to work, and potentially risk their lives due to economic hardship, we the church dare to claim there is a different way the world could be. We dare to believe that our society can and must look after all its members in the coming weeks and months, because we believe the value of each of us does not rest in how much we earn but in the fact that we are all children of God. We believe not gathering yet is the very call of God upon our lives: to witness to the patience of the Gospel.”
Please be assured of ongoing prayers from each of us, as we all work our way through the challenges and opportunities of this time, and as we pray and plan for the future that we hope for, as Congregations, as a Presbytery, and as part of the whole people of God.
Judy McKinlay, Presbytery Co-Chairperson
Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson
Andrew Smith, Presbytery Minister—Congregation Futures
I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?
In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?
If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?
The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.
Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).
Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?
The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).
I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?
We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.
So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.
The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)
Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.
Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?
And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.
That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).
We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?
Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.
Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.
What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.
Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)
When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.
It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.
Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?
This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?
For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.
This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.
Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)
So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.
So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).
To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).
And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??
It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?
Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.
As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.
This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?
This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …
It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.
That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!
We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.
“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.
Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.
So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?
I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.
Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.
The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!
But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).
How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.
Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.
It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.
As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.
I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.
These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.
First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!
Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.
Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.
We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.
In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.
A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.
We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.
Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.
Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.
Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.
Last week, the Prime Minister indicated that, because of the good response across society to observe the restrictions on social gatherings and the limitations on moving around, there is now a plan for a three-stage move away from the current restrictions, towards a society where more mobility and more interaction in person will be possible.
This has, unsurprisingly, raised expectations amongst Congregations, that various activities might recommence. These activities include small groups, business meetings, hall rentals by local business or community groups, and, of course, Sunday worship.
In the weeks to come, as the stages of easing restrictions come into play, there will undoubtedly be conversations about “can we meet together again, now?”. We will need to be prepared for such conversations.
In making decisions about these matters, we need to be sure that we are not simply rushed along with the excitement and anticipation that life will soon be “back to normal”. Life will return, step-by-step, to a situation that will be more like “normal” than the last few weeks have been. However, it is abundantly clear that life will not, indeed, be “back to normal”, as many are anticipating.
Life will change. Life will be different. Gathering-together, after a period of gathering-apart, will necessarily be different. Familiar customs and practices will not be able to be followed unthinkingly. Beloved institutions that have long been part of the Sunday worship rituals will need to be radically altered, or, indeed, put aside entirely.
There are a number of practical matters to be considered in relation to each activity that could re-commence with in-person gatherings. In my mind, these practical matters include:
* room size and spatial distancing (how do we ensure good monitoring of numbers of people in the building, and behaviours of people whilst in the building?)
* maintaining an accurate list of contacts (this is required, now, no matter what size of gathering, to facilitate tracing in the case of an infection, so—someone will need to take responsibility for this; people will need to be asked if they agree to having their contact details recorded; and will refusal to give permission mean access to the activity on the property will be refused?)
* ensuring non-contact in every activity (greetings at the door as people arrive for worship, shaking hands or hugging during the passing of the peace, the handshaking-line at the end of worship, the passing of the offering plate, the passing of the trays with individual communion glasses, and other elements—these will all need to be dropped)
* ensuring scrupulous adherence to thorough disinfecting procedures (the building must be thoroughly disinfected to be prepared before every use, and thoroughly disinfected at the end of every use—an activity that will take some time, each time the building is used)
* ensuring scrupulous adherence to strict food handling procedures (we need to adhere to commercial-standard protocols, and ensure that every volunteer understands exactly what they can and can’t do—and perhaps we should consider whether serving tea/coffee/nibbles after worship is to be banned?)
* the question of singing (latest research shows this is a high risk activity, especially inside, so singing the old favourite hymns or the new choruses will equally be out of bounds for some time—some experts suggest 18 months to 2 years, until a vaccine is available)
* and—pardon the gritty reality here—toilets (everyone will need to be committed to flushing with the lid closed and washing hands thoroughly after each use; we know that flushing toilets spreads aerosols which contain faecal matter—so the question to consider might well be, should toilets not be available for use? or should someone be rostered to thoroughly disinfect the toilet area after each and every individual use?)
Alongside that, there is a set of questions that we perhaps could explore in a fruitful way—questions which consider how we make decisions, how we undertake discussions, and who we are considering in the process of these discussions and decisions. And, from my perspective, reflecting on relevant biblical passages that can inform the way that we operate, can be helpful and fruitful.
Ministry leaders will be catapulted into such discussions (if we have not, already, found ourselves there). So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about regathering as church.
1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important
We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.
We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?
The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.
2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make
The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.
Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.
Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)
“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)
You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.
3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities
“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?
Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.
4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society
Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.
Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.
And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:
“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)
5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)
“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)
This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!
If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?
Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.
Change is happening around us. We are noticing changes taking place in society. The COVID-19 virus has forced a range of changes on us. Decades ago, Bob Dylan penned a folk song, “The times, they are a-changin’”, which has come to be seen as an anthem celebrating the changes that are always taking place in our society.
But in the present time, as we live under significant restrictions on gathering in person, as we keep our distance and stay at home for all manner of things, we sense that our times, are, indeed, a-changin’. So let’s ponder those changes.
Some of these are not good changes. Some may well be beneficial changes. We have had to let go of some valued ways of operating. We have also had to learn new skills and adopt new practices. This is what happens during a time of transition: many things can change. How we deal with these changes is important. What we choose to accept, and what we chose to reject, is up to us.
William Bridges has written an insightful book about such processes, entitled Managing Transitions (2009). Bridges talks about transitions in terms of three stages (as the graphic indicates): first, there is the letting go; then there is the neutral zone of being in-between; and finally, the connection into a new place, a new way of being.
In that neutral, in-between zone, there is a need for us to develop a capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity which arises during the experience of loss, as we move away from the familiar. That is the space we are in now, in the midst of restrictions on gathering, as we work to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We are experiencing, in various ways, the discomfort of ambiguity, as things shift under our feet.
In that liminal space, that unfamiliar territory, we have the time and space to reconsider, to review, to reshape, to remake ourselves. What changes will we accept? What changes will we reshape? What changes will we reject?
Some changes taking place in society feel difficult. Unemployment rates are rising, and many people who move out of employment will find it hard, if not impossible, to gain work after the restrictions end. Funerals are taking place with friends and most family unable to attend; weddings are occurring with even less people physically present. People who live alone are experiencing more intense feelings of loneliness and are craving real human interaction.
People who are vulnerably housed will have far fewer options for shelter at night during winter, as Safe Shelter programs will not be running because of the risks of passing on the virus. The rates of domestic violence are rising, as pressures in the home situation grow, for some, to boiling point. More people are drawing on the social services network provided by our government, but they will hit the ground with a thump after the restrictions end, when benefits will return to their “normal” level (well below the poverty line).
Some small businesses are looking at a glum future, considering the prospect of having to close for good. Tourism companies and travel agencies are particularly impacted, and their reduced business means loss of employment for significant numbers of people. Apparently more than 16,000 new coronavirus-related online domains have been registered since January 2020—many of which are believed to be set up to enable malware and hacking tools to be sold through COVID-19 “discount codes”.
But some changes are good. More than $1 billion has been saved in poker machine losses in the first five weeks of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, according to the Alliance for Gambling Reform. There have been 25% less call outs of paramedics in the Ambulance Service in the ACT, because “people are not out and about so much, they are taking things very easy.” In the NT, the same decrease has been observed, because “there’s less traffic on the roads, so less motor vehicle accidents.”
Seeds have sold out, as people plant their own vegetables in anticipation of food shortages. Laying pullets are scarce and those for sale are selling at two or three times the normal price, as people look to guarantee their supply of eggs. Backyard gardening is making a comeback!
“We’ve been riding bikes for years, now, and we have never experienced so many people out and about walking and riding bikes on the bike trails!”, a number of our friends have commented. Meanwhile, in my region, there are no electric bikes available for sale at the moment—all stock has been sold out!
Local communities have rallied together in so many places. People are much more attuned to those folks who are shut-ins or who are self isolating because of their medical conditions or age. Phone calls and food drops at the front door have been made on a regular basis, and online coffee and chat groups are springing up to maintain connections amongst friends who cannot see each other in person.
Pollution rates have fallen across the globe at the moment; satellite observations showed that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) decreased quite significantly over China in the first month that COVID-19 infections were occurring there, February 2020. The same pattern is now taking place in other countries where restrictions on travel, because of the corona virus, means less traffic, less pollution, less NO₂.
(The NO₂ in our air is almost entirely from combustion. When coal and wood burn, nitrogen trapped in the fuel is oxidised as NO₂. Cars and trucks make NO₂ in their engines when they break down nitrogen in the air at extremely high temperatures. It makes a significant contribution to air pollution, which causes acute respiratory issues like asthma, as well as long-term diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and cancer. The World Health Organisation estimates that in recent years, seven million deaths a year have been attributable to air pollution.)
Drug arrests in Chicago have been measured at 42% lower during March, as drug dealers have no choice but to wait out the economic slump. El Salvador reported an average of two killings a day during March, down from a peak of 600 a day a few years ago. Even criminals are practising social distancing, social isolation!
And our Chief Medical Officer is now saying that we need to ensure that some changes in the way we relate to one another remain permanent, and we don’t go back to old ways—he advocates that we keep our distance from each other, continue our good hand hygiene habits, and don’t shake hands with other people. (This will lower the spread of all forms of viral infections, not just COVID-19.)
Changes are happening in society. Which of these beneficial changes will hold fast into the future? Which ones do we really want to hold on to? Which ones do we want to keep, just a little modified, in the future?
We are also noticing changes that are happening in churches. For instance, I have been keeping a collection of comments from people in my home congregation about the positive nature of the changes they are experiencing, such as: “We can see the faces of people at worship with us, instead of the backs of their heads.” “Morning tea was more lively, I got to talk with different people, people that I normally don’t talk with.” “It was easy to go to church, I can sit in my comfortable chair and don’t have to get going early.”
And some more: “We have seen people come to online church who haven’t been able to come to church in person for months.” “We need to keep on offering services by ZOOM for those who can’t get to church in person.” “Finding happiness in the present moment and situation is such a great way to live. Not always easy to pull off, but a great goal.”
A recent conversation I heard between two people was very succinct: “I’m still learning.” “Aren’t we all!” And I have just seen online an elderly man who has never seen the need for a mobile phone, let alone a computer, who got his technologically-literate son to buy him a second-hand laptop, so he could join the Sunday morning worship. He set ZOOM himself and has been participating every week since!
Another ZOOM meeting I attended recently included people from across a number of Congregations who have been in office, in some cases, for quite some time. Someone from one of the places further away from Canberra (where Presbytery staff and most office bearers are based) said, “It’s nice to put a face to a name after all this time”. Another tick for people from dispersed locations meeting together online!
In another Synod-wide online meeting, a comment was made that “the current crisis has brought to a head some long-running issues; we now need to deal with them and get involved in a constructive way”. The situation has stimulated proactive engagement in situations where the tendency had been to hold back and “let’s hope things sorts out by themselves” (which, of course, they rarely, if ever, do!)
I have heard one person comment that they have turned to the Psalms for spiritual nurture, and they observed that, wherever the psalmist reflects desolation, that is almost always followed by a sense of consolation. Perhaps that idea can undergird our prayers and reflections on the current situation.
Another colleague has observed that new, and positive, connections are being made between previously disconnected and distanced communities and individuals, which has been good for the health of the whole body. The challenge of disruption has generated a new pattern of collaboration and hopefulness.
One regional body is taking advantage of this interruption to “business as usual” by focussing on mission planning for the future, asking, “what are we learning in this current disrupted period, that we can apply to being the church in a renewed missional way?”
And many times, now, I have heard a story that runs along the same lines: since we have been in this period of restrictions on gathering, we have been making intentional connections with people who had drifted away from our Sunday gatherings. Now we have refreshed our connections and we are feeling that many of them seem to be “part of us” once again.
Some of the changes are, to be sure, experienced as less than desireable. “How many people are clicking on to online worship more as voyeurs than as fully engaged disciples?”, asked one colleague. Another mused, “my minister seems to be spending all their time playing with technology rather than making contact with people”. These are practices that we need to find a way to balance better.
I’ve heard one person articulate the need to move away from “leading worship well” towards a way to “equip people to grow in their own discipleship”. Some colleagues are devoting significant time, not just to preparing the Sunday worship, but to collating, writing and distributing resources that are available for personal use in the home—reflective worship times, meditations on scripture, studies to deepen discipleship, questions to challenge people to seek new ways of serving in the post-COVID period.
Another church leader has identified the challenges that are immediately before us as we consider how we might serve people with particular issues: people living with disabilities, people dealing with longterm mental illness, people who are vulnerable housed and dependent on church and community provision of safe shelter (especially in winter time). For such people who depend so much on in-person connection, the online manner of connecting leaves much to be desired. (And, for some, they lack any capacity to have the capability of regular, trustworthy online connection.)
By the same token, those whose particular challenge has been that they live at a significant distance from their place of worship, and need to undertake lengthy drives each time they attend worship, fellowship, or church council meetings, have found that being able to attend online, from the comfort of their own home, has many benefits.
So I think that, overall, my take on all of this can be articulated in some short and simple comments: Community is more important than worship. Service is at the centre of the Gospel. Discipleship engages us with the whole of society, not simply the inner club. Consistent relationships with other human beings are crucial. Creativity can flourish when we are thrust into unfamiliar situations. Disruption can deepen our faith, extend our understandings, refresh our mission.
The study indicates that the positives from this liminal period can be valued and retained, even as we shed the negatives and less desireable aspects from our time of social,distancing and self isolation.
Dr Norris believes that post-COVID, “we will see differences in the way people engage with each other, in the way people work, in the priorities given to the environment, and the way people think about travel.” And another interesting comment she has: “A lot of people expect spirituality to increase.”
That study clearly indicates that we stand in a critical period of time, during which we have the opportunity to explore our priorities—personal, as disciples, and communal, as a church—and to make commitments to refreshed and innovative ways of operating in the future. It’s an opportunity, not a threat. We ought to rejoice in, and focus on our strengths, not bemoan our situation and become fixated on the weaknesses it has exposed.
So what changes do we want to keep? What things can we change to ensure that the good things that have been happening continue? What new things do we plan to introduce as a result of the changes we have experienced in this period of time? What strategies are we developing to be well placed for the post-COVID situation?