The following article was published in the September 2020 edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.
Sixteen years ago, I left the parish of All Saints Episcopal Church in Carmel, California, to move to British Columbia. Some people of perspicacity created a sketch to be performed by a motley cast, including my own child as a caricature of myself. Presented as a foretaste of what my future parish might expect, they poked just a little fun at my addiction to what might be called information technology. The aforementioned offspring was provided with a laptop computer from which the words of worship were read, hung from the neck like one of those trays from which ladies in pink used to dispense ice cream in cinemas, and delivered such lines as, “And now, please open your Palm Pilots for today’s service.” There was also some comment about people keeping their contributions to the parish magazine to a minimum, to allow plenty of room for my own article(s), but we shall skip over that slightly uncomfortable truth!
Well, if we jump forward to 2020, what do we find? I have been using an iPad to deliver sermons for nearly a decade (and, no, I don’t just read random stuff that I find on the internet, as one sceptical person apparently assumed). Accelerated by the need to accommodate precautions against COVID-19, worship in Menorca is either available through the church web site, or when we can worship in the church itself, projected onto a screen to avoid the need to use books. And since apparently not everyone’s eyesight is sufficient to read what is on the screen, starting in September, a QR code can be scanned within the church to download the words onto a mobile phone. Life imitates art. Well, apart from the Palm Pilots, which have been gone for a long time. It’s all a long way from a well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer. A still, small voice inside me warns that it will be a long time before we return to a way of worship that is even vaguely similar to what we were doing just six months ago. And I suspect that some things will be permanently changed.
The church has always faced the challenge of how to adapt to the needs of the conditions, culture and climate in which it is situated, without compromising its basic beliefs and practices. And this is about more than the way in which we worship, although worship highlights and punctuates the way in which a life of faith is lived.
I find myself ruminating on words that I have often uttered from the pulpit, reminding the faithful that the church cannot be just a social club for like-minded individuals. While that remains true (notwithstanding the difficulty of finding people of like minds!), we are suddenly reminded that removal of the social aspects of church membership leaves many people isolated and alone. Not only that, but the loss of regular cycles of celebration accentuates this feeling of loss and isolation. We missed celebrating Holy Week and Easter; what will we do at Christmas? There is already some grieving taking place, and there will be more.
In June, I wrote about the desire for some of the discoveries of the quarantine period to be perpetuated in whatever we find to be ‘normal’ moving ahead. In this context, the church has to learn how to be a prophetic voice, willing to tell the truth to and about the powerful, in an environment where our way of life will in some ways be permanently changed. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall seeing that the human body, internally, never loses the scars and signs of injury or damage, even when the surface wounds seem to have healed. Every cut, graze, or fracture apparently leaves a permanent trace. This is true of our collective life together in community. I wonder how the church will be changed by the current upheavals. Not only has our worship been altered, but our outreach efforts have had to adapt, for example. We cannot simply create bags of food to be distributed in the way that we have previously done.
Another of the challenges facing the church today is to find a way of responding to the needs of those who live fragile lives on the borders of our society. Populist governments have exploited fear of ‘outsiders’ to justify austerity for the poor, closed borders and the rejection of refugees. Yet this is not something that can sit ethically or morally within the main religious and spiritual traditions. Mona Siddiqui, a Moslem professor at Edinburgh University, recently wrote: ‘In Islam, while hospitality is a fundamental virtue emerging from the harsh desert environment, feeding and helping others is never reduced to charity or watered down to soft piety. It demands reaching out and inviting in and comes with both risks and rewards to others as well as ourselves.’ This is exactly the same value and tradition that is shared by Judaism, Christianity and other faiths.
One of the characteristics of Jesus that is to be found in the New Testament is his willingness and ability to take people out of the boxes in which other people had placed them. Whether we look at the isolation of the lonely, the plight of refugees, the equality of women, the place of the ‘differently enabled,’ the healing of the physically and mentally ill, the care of the needy, the hospitality to be offered to the displaced, the restoration of a damaged environment, or any other of the issues with which humanity wrestles in these times, we might take the cliche of ‘thinking outside the box’ and apply it to those whom we encounter and share our world. This, for me, is a key role for the church – to provide leadership in encouraging the physical, intellectual, emotional and (especially) spiritual growth of all people, regardless of the labels attached to them.
Just as we are going to be worshipping in different ways for the indefinite future, we are going to have to learn new ways of being the church in the wider world. And this is going to be a rather larger challenge than providing a QR code to follow the words of the church services. Online worship has extended our reach beyond the doors of the church building; I wonder how many people will be willing to join us in defining and building the church as an institution that can grow and adapt to meet the evolving needs of the world in which it sits.