In all of the discussion and debate about whether churches should be open during this journey of a plague year, what is often forgotten is that they never closed. The buildings may not be open, of course, but anybody who believes that church is merely walls and doors and windows has rather lost the point. Church is God, people, community. And love. It’s a divine symbiosis, a mutual romance based in Gospel teachings and modelled on the life of Jesus.
For me, as an Anglican cleric at a large Ontario church, on a practical level, it’s Zoom services on Sundays, Morning Prayer on Thursdays, and various other meetings. That’s all extremely important, especially the sharing of devotion and worship. But, at its heart — at its beating heart — it’s something else. It’s individual ministry, by phone or online, where clergy call, help, and pray. But most of all, we listen.
Listen to people whose parents or grandparents are in hospital COVID-19 wards where nobody, other than medical staff, are permitted to attend, with the sombre added reminder that, if death is imminent, a visit will then be allowed. Listen to someone who has lived life with an adored spouse for half a century and now drives to the nursing home so that he can look at the building where his wife is being cared for. Look, remember, send love, perhaps shed a tear.
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Listen as people tell of family members succumbing to this dark devil, sometimes more than one in the space of a few days. Listen to people who have not been allowed out of their rooms for two weeks; whose food is brought to their door by staff in gowns, gloves, and masks; who have never felt comfortable using computers and so rely on that telephone suddenly and loudly announcing that someone is calling, someone is caring.
Listen as people amaze us with their strength and with their refusal to embrace self-pity or even sadness. Listen, as well, as people ask why God would allow all this, ask where God is when it hurts so much, and demand to know whether this really is a good God. I can speak only for myself, but while I do try to gently outline what I believe, I would never thrust a theological response onto someone in such a place of pain. I do, however, offer prayer, and it’s usually welcomed.
Obviously, the very notion of speaking to God is like spiritual catnip to atheists, and many people will reject prayer as tokenism, as an empty gesture used to disguise lack of effort or as a reluctance to perform the real work of change and repair. That’s not entirely fair, because we do the work of change and repair all the time, but supported by, and often as a result of, that conversation with God. Prayer is comforting in numerous ways, but it is also fiercely challenging and even hurtful. It leads to as many questions as it does answers. And, as one person said to me, “I pray to remind myself that I’m not alone.”
For me, the virus, the lockdown, and all of their consequences have become like a new normal, in that I was ordained only in October 2019. I started at my first church two months later, and the following March, we were hit by the invisible killer. So, for the vast majority of my time ordained, I have worked within conditions unknown for a hundred years. It’s made many parts of what I’m supposed to do extremely difficult — and sometimes impossible. But it’s also forced me, all of us, to compensate and to find strength and ability in other areas. Like the growth of one sense when another is lost.
As a cleric, I need to empathize, to feel what others feel. I’m not merely a kind observer, not just a sympathetic friend, but a comrade and a colleague in those trenches of suffering and emptiness. But while we must stand in solidarity with those in despair and brokenness, we also have to show them Jesus — and then get out of the way. It must never, ever be about us, but always about them and always about God.
It’s a baptism of loss and a baptism of agony. Not something I’d anticipated or wanted, and something I hope from the depths of my being will never happen again. But it has nevertheless taught me so much. That the human spirit is greater than we might think. That so much of what we consider important in life is transient and tinselly, the window-dressing on the sacred and the profound. That people are remarkable and good and kind, and that, in the cruellest and most biting of circumstances, that oft-forgotten reality can shine its brightest. God bless them.