Sunday, June 28, 2020

We Can't Carry On Meeting Like This

At time of writing, there is still no guidance for public worship, which is supposed to be permissible from next Sunday. That disconcerting noise you hear is that of a vicar flying blind.

Boris Johnsons comments about weddings suggest, that maximum service size is 30. In practice much less in small buildings like ours, where we are looking at 10-15). Maximum meeting size in a house is 1 other family, or 6 people outdoors.

This all means that churches are going to have to completely rethink their basic building blocks. Neither the gathered congregation (our two churches number 90 and 40) nor the midweek homegroup (8-12 people) are going to be possible, perhaps for up to a year.

What will this mean? 'In person' worship becoming a scheduled but sporadic experience - we'll probably need a 2-monthly cycle for people attending in turn, unless we start running multiple services. And the 'small group' unit becoming 3 or 4, which presents a very different dynamic for bible study, pastoral support, prayer etc.

And if that all lasts a year, what will happen to the sense of identity of any 'congregational' (25+) or 'home group' (7+) sized structure that tries to ride it out? Do churches need to explore other structures for a shared common identity and mission, rhythm of prayer? Like this, for example....

 We are going to have to stop meeting like this.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Churches: the 'New Normal'

The United Reformed Church has produced a discussion paper for local church leadership on 'The New Normal'. It covers a variety of practical and strategic questions for use of church buildings post-lockdown, and is a helpful read whatever church tradition you're from. With the news that Hillsong may not meet as before until 2021, there is a lot of thinking going on about what a post-covid church looks like.

I read this in an excellent collection of short pieces about lockdown/digital church. Seems spot on:

Companies have discovered that their employees really can and will work from home, so expensive office space gradually will be eliminated as will the lunch time crowds of many eateries. Although there will be a rebound as we try to “return to normal,” soon enough, every industry will recognize that this change is more enduring than the virus....

...Unfortunately, when things “return to normal” churches and restaurants likely will breathe a sigh of relief and go right back to business as usual. They won’t even notice that something inexplicable has changed forever, and by the time these new habits and trends become obvious to moribund institutions, it will be too late.

Mainline churches have been merging or closing for several decades. In the wake of this pandemic, that will greatly accelerate because the “return to normal” will be short-lived, and our churches are biding their time, waiting to get back to the way things were. It isn’t happening. 

Many congregations have seen the future and are retooling for it. They are paying attention to the implications of what will be the “new normal” for society. Churches that thrive will adapt to, and even exploit, new cultural realities. Those faith communities are rare, though, because the church and its leadership are among the most change-resistant creatures God ever made. In this case, however, that resistance may prove fatal.

Monday, April 27, 2020


On Friday our family are doing a 100km sponsored exercise bike ride in support of TEAR Fund, in reponse to the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the developing world. If you'd like to support that, please go here, or you can donate direct via the TEAR Fund website.

Most countries have a much sketchier welfare state than ours - in many places, lockdown means no work, no work means no food or money. It is a choice between infection or starvation. Or it means confinement in a refugee camp or slum where social distancing is all but impossible, and there isn't access to clean water or soap for the basic act of washing hands.

To get some idea of the challenge, have a look at this article:

South Africa, which has one of Africa’s best public health systems, has fewer than 1,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, of which 160 are in the private sector, for a population of 56m. In Malawi, there are about 25 ICU beds in public hospitals, serving 17 million people. The main infectious diseases hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has none.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Webcasts: 'Solitude' and 'Touch'

Like everyone else we've ventured into the wonders of modern technology, here's a couple of recent reflections posted on our Youtube channel, on Touch and Solitude. Sorry about the scary pictures. And yes I am going to tidy my study. Maybe.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Coronavirus - A vicars diary 2

It's all incredibly quiet. Like someone has pressed 'hibernate' on the world. Out at 5pm yesterday cycling around Yeovil, there were more bikes than cars on the roads.

Everything else is making it up as we go along. Last weeks big challenge was pulling together a contacts list at both churches. This weeks is reacting to the almost daily changes in guidance. First we could do weddings with 5 people max as well as funerals and baptisms. Then the weddings and baptisms went but funerals were still ok, now there's a complete shutdown. I'm not even supposed to go into my own churches to pray, let alone to stream live worship. However the government guidance is more relaxed than that issued by the Archbishops. But since the government website was updated only today - and it doesn't tell you what was updated - I don't know if the relaxation is a new thing since we were instructed to lock the doors.

So from looking at how to deliver live streamed worship, with music, from our church building, it will probably be yours truly at home, with a nice picture covering the normal chaos of my study and doubling as a passable background. We're probably going to save Communion for Easter Day, and prime people over the next 2 weeks to get supplies in. In the meantime we're working on a 'worship at home' pack which can be emailed out, and posted to those without email, with all the Sunday liturgies, resources for daily prayer, contact details, and palm crosses for those who are getting the deliveries.

The volunteer response picture is changing by the day. All sorts of groups have sprung up around Yeovil, so the NHS initiative is encouraging, it's important to have a co-ordinated effort rather than a patchwork of groups which will never reach every corner of society, and may end up duplicating. Having said that, we're assembling a list of offers of help, and have had 4 households in touch so far, including a 99 year old. A member of our church with a health condition was told today she'd next be allowed out on 25th June, so she's been stockpiling wool in order to knit her way through the next quarter.

We've managed to produce a daily diet of podcasts, thoughts for the day, a couple of 'virtual assemblies' and a very moving and peaceful Compline service put together by our associate Vicar. This Sunday will be live streamed from here, but we've scheduled the sermon (pre-recorded by one of our trainee preachers and incorporated into a video) to pop up on the Youtube channel during the service, so people can pause the livestream and switch to the sermon if they want to.

Speaking to a couple tomorrow who are due to get married in July. I have no idea what to say, no idea how to plan for it. It's hard to have to postpone a wedding, but it's even harder if people die, I think we're suddenly finding lots of things that we can do without if we suddenly put our minds to it.

The word floating round my head at the moment is 'Sabbath'. The account of the exile of God's people in 2 Chronicles speaks of the land 'enjoying a sabbath rest' for all the years it had hosted the Israelites without them faithfully worshipping God. It ended up lying fallow for decades. There's something about this moment that feels like the planet is breathing a deep, silent sigh of relief. The planes are on the ground, the cars and cruise liners are parked, the ferocious consumerism (food aside) has suddenly stopped, we are back to basics: food, home, health, communication. I have often wondered if God builds 'failsafe' mechanisms into the world, so that if we over-reach ourselves they kick in to stop things getting too far out of balance.

Prior to the modern age, the question was never 'how can God allow this suffering' it was 'how can we ever deserve God's mercy'. Rather than assuming we were in the right and God was in the wrong, it was the other way round. The response to tragedy was to question ourselves first, rather than outsource blame to God. The unreflected life is not worth living, is this enough of a wake up call to get us asking the right questions? Coronavirus is not the end of the world, but if it's the end of a way of life that would have led to the end of the world, then we might look back on 2020 as a turning point.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The first self-isolating family

Re-reading the Noah story, for a 'virtual assembly' in a few days time, it turns out that Noah and his family were cooped up together for just over a year. At least they had the animals to distract them. So if you're feeling a bit stir crazy already, just be glad the rain's stopped.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coronavirus - A vicars diary 1

This evening should have been the PCC - Parochial Church Council - but that became one of several cancelled meetings this week. It goes in the shredder along with the Lent course, pastoral visits to the elderly, school parents evening, a Spring Fair, and sadly a wedding on Saturday which was brought forward to escape the shutdown, but still has too many key people for the Church of England restrictions, and so has been postponed.

Last night I had a call from a funeral director, who, thinking we were closed for everything, wanted to borrow some chairs for doing funerals on his premises. The funeral protocols are a bit vaguer than those for weddings, we can still do them, but with a minimal number of mourners, and discouraging the over-70s and those with underlying health conditions from attending. With the closure of Yeovil Crematorium from next week, I've also been peppering my Diocese with emails asking for permission to act as a substitute venue, not just for church funerals but for others too. We'll see...

The last 2 days have been manic. On the one hand, setting up the scaffolding for church life without the two things which often define us the most - the building, and the Sunday morning meeting. We have 2 churches, so we've been creating a contacts list for both, and a strategy for keeping in touch with everyone, whether they are part of a small group, on email, on Facebook, on a smartphone (and thus able to join a Whatsapp group), or just have a landline. There's a slightly different way of getting in touch with each 'layer' of the congregation. We already have a few people signed up who weren't members of the church, but want to keep in touch with what we're doing.

What are we doing? Daily prayer podcasts and video messages, trying to nail the tech for live streaming a Sunday service from Youtube, with liturgy posted on the church website for people to follow at home. An email/Whatsapp/Facebook communication template which gets key information out to about 90% of both congregations. Ringing round everyone who's not on email to make sure they know that Sundays (and everything else) are cancelled, but that they can join in online or at home. Next weeks job is creating a prayer resource for people to use at home - daily prayers, a Sunday liturgy we'll use each week, key contacts and websites, and a few other bits and bobs.

Our main parish church will be staying open, St James Yeovil, for personal prayer, and for donations to the local food bank, which is going to need every tin of beans they can lay their hands on. We're putting out some creative prayer stations, so that the church becomes more of a prayer space than a corporate worship space. Someone is down there every day saying morning prayer, the rest of us join in at 9am via the CofE Daily Prayer app.

The Community Centre at our other church, St. Peters, has become a vital community hub. Most of the groups have closed down, but we're trying to work out if there is a way of keeping it open as a community resource - it hosts a small library, and can be a collection point for various things (the latest is a large batch of wool from a house clearance, which our army of local knitters will be raiding on Monday morning). With all the free time that people are going to have, it may be viable to set up a fresh food bank, with unsold produce from the local Co-op, which we've been offered but never had the team of volunteers able to make it happen.

Meanwhile in the community, we've managed to cover nearly half the streets in a 2000 home neighbourhood with these things
Having a strong community Facebook group has been a massive help, through one post on that, we've been able to circulate a list of streets and co-ordinate deliveries. We've left a pile in the church, and in the local co-op, for people to help themselves. I'm hoping we run out and need to reprint for both.

I have my ups and downs with social media - I quit Twitter about this time last year because it just seemed to be full of angry people being angry with each other, and I always came off more agitated than before I logged on. But it has been such an asset this week, being able to use email, Facebook, youtube, Zoom (video conferencing - going to try Morning Prayer with a group of 10 people on Monday, if that works we might roll it out to the whole congregation), Whatsapp, Anchor podcasts, they've all been excellent for getting the tools and the infrastructure for keeping in touch with most of the congregation. For those not on social media, we're setting up 'phone pastors' who will have 6 people they ring every week, to keep them in touch. 

I normally get 30-40 emails a day, today it was 100, and Facebook in Yeovil has been white hot with groups, initiatives, offers of help, key communications, plus the odd idiot who's required me to put my group moderator hat on. 

I work from home normally, I'm fairly happy with my own company, I regularly do quiet days and occasionally do retreats -the best was 8 days in silence. So I'm ok with social distancing, and once I've got used to having hardly any face to face meetings, it probably won't be too much of a trial. But for those who are reliant on being/getting out and about, who have to home school their children for 3+ months, who rely on the visitors they get, etc. etc. this is going to be very hard. 

At the same time, this could be an incredibly fruitful time. I know someone who has borrowed a cello so they can self-teach during what would have been the summer term. Already lots of creative ideas are appearing on social media. Without all the time and energy which goes into Sunday church, we're going to discover a new, less busy, and maybe more authentic way of being the church. We're going to find out what shape we become without a building and a Sunday meeting to shape and define us. We're going to have chances to bless and love other people that don't present themselves in normal times. I'm praying we rise to the challenge, that we grow, that it's the acts of kindness and not the selfish and life-threatening stockpiling that define us. 

And finally... it's going to be a long tunnel. If the restrictions are too effective, we'll come out of them in June/July with only a fraction of the population having been infected, leaving everyone else vulnerable of a second flare up. So how long do the restrictions stay in place? As long as Covid-19 is out of control somewhere in the world, there's a chance of it getting everywhere again. If we do flatten the curve, the only safe time to go back to normal is when we have a vaccine, which is by all accounts 12+ months away. If the efforts are not a success, the restrictions may lift sooner due to the 'herd immunity', but at a catstrophic cost in the meantime. Where, and how, will it end? The main factor is our behaviour. It's up to us.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

CS Lewis on Coronavirus

well, almost - well done to The Gospel Coalition for digging this one out. Swap 'atomic bomb' for coronavirus. For most of history, most people have lived with the possibility of imminent death, through war, plague, famine, illness etc., and they have got on with life. I think there is a lot of wisdom here.

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Political Parties as Weather Systems

Whilst delirious from coronavirus*, I suddenly got to wondering. You know those team building sessions where you're asked to imagine yourself as a fruit, or your organisation as a species of fish? Me neither. But in these weather - saturated times, what meteorological form do our political parties take?

Conservative Party - A large, prolonged and blustery shower
Labour Party - A turbulent front, breaking up around the Middle East.
Labour Party Brexit Policy - Fog
Liberal Democrats - Hail (small, hits you hard for a while then melts away)
Scottish National Party - A biting Northerly wind.
Democratic Unionist Party - Heavy weather

*or standing up too quickly on an empty stomach

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Is The Church Obsessed with Sex?

No, though sometimes yes.

A substantial batch of paperwork has been released by the CofE in advance of February's General Synod meeting. Apart from some proposals to end so-called 'paupers funerals', most of them have been ignored by the main media outlets. It is only on the comparatively rare occasions when the CofE mention sex that the media beast wakes up and howls at the moon. .

So, inevitably, one document has generated more electronic newsprint than all the rest put together. And you can guess what it's about.  It's a so-called 'Pastoral Statement' about civil partnerships. I say so-called, because the general opinion is that it's not very pastoral, and because it's actually more of a clarification of the status of civil partnerships vis a vis marriage. Civil partnerships are now almost legally indistinguishable from marriage, so the statement addresses how far church teaching on marriage applies to civil partnerships. It's quite clear from the introduction to the document that this is its purpose.

What has caused most of the upset, as far as I can see, is that the document restates the traditional teaching of the church on marriage, in pretty much the same terms as it stated it 15 years ago. So whilst CofE leaders are talking about 'radical inclusion' and the church as a whole is following a 'listening process', the document strikes a different tone to all of that. It's not hard to see how that creates a dissonance, it looks to those who want the church to change its teaching that all this chat about inclusion and listening is just smoke and mirrors, and that nothing has changed, or will change.

There's plenty about this going on elsewhere - see Ian Pauls comments section for example - but for what it's worth....

1. The media is obsessed with sex, not the church. Westboro Baptist Church has a membership of 50, and yet is the subject of countless articles, documentaries, TV programmes, chat show discussions etc. Why? Because of their attitude to sex and how they express it. Don't give them the oxygen of publicity. My two churches have a combined membership 3x the size of Westboro, we have no placards, and we're still waiting for that call from Louis Theroux.

2. This is what happens when a body trying to communicate with its own members ends up speaking to everyone.

Christian discipleship includes a form of discipline (the clue's in the noun), just like commitment to any other path, be it losing weight, learning a skill or doing a paid job. What applies to Christians doesn't apply to people who aren't Christians. I don't follow the rules or practices of Weight Watchers, or the Labour Party, but members of both have certain rules and values they're supposed to abide by.  I shouldn't be scandalised if Weight Watches raises its weight loss target by 50%, or cancels the membership of people who don't turn up to meetings - I'm not a member of the group, it's nothing to do with me. It may be wise for me to act a bit more like a member of Weight Watchers (no comment), but that's as far as it goes. It may be wise for people to act a bit more like some of the things the church commends (forgiveness, generosity etc.) but that's as far as it goes. The rules, teaching and values of a group apply in full to group members only. But the rules, teaching and values of the CofE seem to be everyone's property. The signatories to the letter of protest at the Bishops statement go way beyond church members.

3. As someone who didn't have sex before I got married - and have never regretted that - I'm not sure how I would feel if my church declared that that was all a mistake, and I needn't have bothered with all that restraint nonsense. It was challenging, difficult,, and went against the flow of the culture I was raised in - raise that by a factor of 10 for the present day. I'm glad I did it, and would encourage others to do the same, even though most of the couples I do weddings for already have kids, and nearly all of them are living together. I pray God would bless them and give them fantastic marriages, and am delighted for all of them that they've found love in each other. Yet it would still be a massive kick in the guts if the CofE decided that (somehow) sex and marriage didn't belong together, and decoupled the ultimate act of commitment and the ultimate act of loving vulnerability. There are those of us for whom the CofE's 'definition of marriage' is how we have faithfully tried to live out our following of Jesus, it isn't something we need to apologise for.

4. Just as the 'settled results of modern scholarship' look like laughable guff a couple of generations later, we have not reached a settled shared morality on sexuality as a society. Far from it. Would you look at our rates of porn use (especially among children) sexual violence, relationship breakup, gender confusion (the Tavistock centre is now being sued for its gender transition practices by someone who experienced them as a child), the high pitched tone of all debates around gender sex and ethics, rising incidence of STDs, etc and think: 'they've really got all this sussed, if any society has got a mature and well considered take on sexuality its the UK in 2020'? That doesn't mean coming to no conclusions at all, but it does mean we need to hold our conclusions in a proper spirit of liberalism, rather than absolute conviction that we are right, and everyone else is wicked.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Tim Farron, Voice of Reason

Very good piece by Tim Farron in the Express, on Parliamentary prayers, Christian faith and liberalism. Here's a clip:
Whilst I don’t believe that my Christian faith is simply a matter of personal preference but rather a belief in something that is true, I also believe it is my duty as an MP, a Christian and a Liberal Democrat to be utterly committed to the freedom of others who hold different positions. To impose my faith on someone else does no good.  Christianity is, I would argue, an unequalled force for good, but when it becomes deployed as a political tool it can be the source of much that is far from good.
However, many Christians that I speak to feel absolutely no sense of privilege in their position. Rather than having the biggest platform and a rubber-stamped loud hailer, many Christians today feel marginalised. In reality the UK establishment acts as though the state religion is Atheism.  The default position when it comes to decision making in government circles, in the media and in our wider culture, is to assume that the absence of faith is the neutral and agreed position. Of course, it is *sort of* OK to have a religious faith and to think something different to the mainstream, but the assumption is that this makes you at best a bit whacky, and at worst downright unpleasant.  
and he concludes
...true diversity is about accepting that others are different to you, not by seeking to enforce a sanitised assimilation. If we are going to exist alongside one another with our hodgepodge of backgrounds and opinions it is not going to be neat. It is going to be messy and uncomfortable, and to need compromise and understanding.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

If I shout loud enough, I can't hear you

Given how far back they have fallen, the current Labour party leadership contest may be the most pointless exercise in democracy since the last Russian election. (I hope it isn't, Boris Johnson is as slippery as an eel thats been soaped, oiled and taken a PhD in slipperiness.) It's also proving to be yet another illustration of how the British left does dog whistle politics. Tolerance and inclusivity yay, but as Tim Farron discovered, woe betide you if your personal views diverge from the current progressive orthodoxy.

Rebecca Long-Bailey is now discovering the same thing, for having the independence of mind to question the law which currently allows terminating a pregnancy at 38 weeks (or ending the life of an unborn baby - we don't have a way of describing this that isn't already morally loaded) for reasons of serious disability. The pushback includes a campaign (successful) to get every leadership candidate signed up to a pledge to deregulate abortion still further, which categorises attempts to present alternative views as misogyny and hate crime.

Maybe I'm a conservative dinosaur, but I'd be deeply uncomfortable with any political context which treated the ending of human life, at whatever stage, as a settled issue. If we're going to wave around phrases like 'right to choose', lets at least look deeply into what we mean by them. If the right to choose is a fundamental principle, rather than just a slogan, then it can bear investigation and robust debate. Indeed, investigation and robust debate might succeed in carrying more people with it, and creating more of a consensus, than using it to shut debate down.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I Agree With Harry

On page 48 of the Conservative Manifesto, is a pledge to discontinue the Leveson process. Along with the governments sabre-rattling about the BBC, it's a very clear signal of how the land lies with a Johnson majority. The press are off the leash.

If I had seen my own mother hounded, smeared and finally driven to her death by the tabloid press, and had witnessed the same thing now starting to happen to my wife, the Tory pledge would set alarm bells ringing all over the house. Johnson's clear majority means that we will have 5 years of whatever press regime this government chooses to champion. Given that, now would be a great time to emigrate, and to find a way to take myself and my family out of the frontline.

I don't think Harry had a choice. It's clear that the media see shredding Megan as both their right and their cash cow, and it's equally clear that the government (strangely silent n this whole episode) aren't going to lift a finger to stop them. If you had a choice, why would you willingly put up with that?

Taking the longer view, the whole royal family needs to rally round and support them. After all, if the tabloid press can't pursue one royal, you can bet your life they'll go looking for another target.

Zelo Street offers a valuable factchecking service on all those so called 'stories', with the help of Byline Investigates. Remember, you can't believe everything  anything you read in the Daily Mail.

update: Buzzfeed have helpfully compiled 20 examples of the medias drip drip character assasination