When we look back over history, and explore it in the traditional framework that we use to mark the periods of history, people of the Christian faith see a large watershed around the time of Jesus.
Traditionally, we have marked this watershed by using the letters BC and AD—Before Christ, and Anno Domino (“in the year of our Lord”). Those letters stand us in good stead, however, when we reflect on the past year. The years prior to 2020 are BC years; we consider them to be “Before COVID”.
But then, from early in 2020, and spreading rapidly across the globe through the months of that year, we experienced a major disruption. COVID interrupted familiar patterns, forcing everyone to refrain from gathering together, pressing upon us all the imperative of using technology to connect, inviting us to provide pastoral care, worship, learning opportunities, and social gatherings in the virtual space online.
The disruptions of this time were extensive, reaching widely and deeply into our familiar patterns. From late 2020, then, we have been living in the years we can mark as AD: After the Disruption. Things are different. Events have made things different. Society has learnt to function in different ways—use the check-in app, sanitise, maintain social distancing, count numbers on the space, practice good personal hygiene, stay at home if you are unwell, or vulnerable.
People in the church have also learnt to function in different ways. We check in when we arrive for worship. We gather to worship and do not sing or hug. We support the church financially by online giving, not by “passing the plate”. We participate in regular learning opportunities online, and engage with people who are geographically quite distant from one another. We continue to offer worship in hybrid ways, both in person and online.
We continue the provision of worship resources in hard copy or via email to people who are vulnerable or frail. We have adapted to having morning tea after worship, served by people wearing masks and gloves, with individually-packaged food. We may not like all of these changes, but we recognise how important they are to ensure the safety of all our people.
When the Canberra Region Presbytery met on 20 March, we heard from the Secretary of Synod, the Rev. Jane Fry, who urged us to consider the new things that are emerging out of this change. “COVID erupted into society, and the church, bringing chaos”, Jane observed, “and we know, from scripture and history, that God works best through chaos.”
So what has been taking place in this time of chaos, as we move from BC (Before COVID) to AD (Anno Domino)? What changes have we recognised to be important? What new things is God doing in our midst, as a result of the chaotic disruptions of COVID. We explored various ideas during the Presbytery meeting conversation with Jane Fry.
Traditionally, we have ensured that stipended ministry is offered in places that can afford them; the challenge, now, is for us to move to a model that places community chaplaincy in an area with significant need. Work is underway on this exact matter, as Presbytery considers how to provide grater ministry resourcing in the South Coast regions which have been impacted so greatly by the bushfires.
We noted the importance of continuing our pastoral care of ageing people who have been faithful over many decades. The Synod Secretary affirmed that, and invited such groups to consider, “what is our legacy for the future?” Rather than “keeping the lights burning until we all done”, how might ageing congregations best envisage “how do we serve as midwives to the future?”
Relating to people outside the church is another challenge, and opportunity, facing us as the Uniting Church. The dominant voice for “Christianity” in the public arena has, for some time, expressed very different perspectives on many matters, when compared with the way the Uniting Church operates in society and what we value in our communities. How do we strategise to provide a stronger voice, in our distinctive tones, into those public conversations?
How do we leverage off the many assets that we have, as church, to ensure that mission and ministry are resourced and developed? What place does the “rationalisation of property” play in this process? Whilst church properties in the ACT have, in effect, a “zero dollar value”, nevertheless we are stewards of many properties—how do they figure in the ways that we foster our core activities as the people of God?
So, lots of important and helpful questions have been raised. How do we respond to them and work through them, is the challenge for the coming time.
As we head into the future After the Disruption, I personally yearn for a church where active discipleship is the key marker of membership; grace is the benchmark of who we are when we gather in community; the heart of the Gospel is known to be justice for all, where we work towards that goal for all people; and we take seriously those fearsome words that we pray all-too-easily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Footnote: many people will know that I have long operated with the scholarly convention to refer to “Before the Common Era” (BCE) and “Common Era” (CE), as this offers clearer respect to our Jewish brothers and sisters and avoids the sense of Christian supercessionism in our language. But, for the purposes of this reflection, I have reverted to the old BC—AD language. It seems to fit.
Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.
We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.
One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.
For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.
We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.
So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.
These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.
As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.
The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.
Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)
Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)
Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)
Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.
If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.
We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.
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.