I have recently been at ordination services for both deacons and priests. Usually, such services are packed to the rafters with family, friends, people from the parishes and all manner of well-wishers. This year was different. The services were shrunk to less than thirty people. We all kept our distance and were masked throughout. The services were still rich and meaningful, but there is no getting away from it – this is not what the candidates and their supporters had expected or wanted. No doubt episcopal ordinations will follow in much the same vein, as I look forward to my consecration as Bishop of Stafford in January!
Disappointment and uncertainty mark our times and that’s hard to live with. We make plans for a week or a month’s time and then the number of cases rises, new government regulations are brought in and the threat of a new lockdown hovers threateningly over all our tentative arrangements. We think of all the weddings postponed, students isolated in their halls of residence, theatres closed, holidays cancelled, jobs lost, and we wonder if it is worth making any plans at all.
We have found ourselves astonished by the rapidity of our descent into uncertainty. We are so used to thinking we are in control and have mastery of the world around us that we feel particularly helpless in the face of a virus that is oblivious to our carefully laid plans.
So how do those new deacons and priests minister in such a world? How do all God’s people bear witness to the hope of the gospel in such an uncertain time? What kind of church must we be when everything is so unpredictable?
Ancient institutions, like churches, can find it hard to sit light to ‘the way we have always done things’. This solidity can be a good thing - we are not prone to being simply be blown about by the latest fad or fashion or knocked off course by each new crisis. But it can lead to inflexibility. We may claim that ‘here we have no abiding city’ whilst in fact we are rather comfortable and settled with how things are. But in a time when so much feels provisional, we will need to learn how to improvise. There are recent indications that the church can do this when it puts its mind to it. When our buildings were closed, we had to improvise and we found new ways to reach out to one another and our communities – by phone, online or by email.
Improvisation is not the same as starting from scratch. As a second-rate guitarist, I know how hard it is to improvise. First-rate jazz musicians need tremendous dedication and practice to improvise well. They need to be attuned to the great jazz tradition, sense the mood and direction of the music and be responsive to their fellow musicians. If we are to make beautiful music during a time of uncertainty and turbulence, we will need to drink deeply from the great tradition of Christian teaching, learning and wisdom and then, confident in that faith, respond nimbly and confidently to a world in flux.
We serve a God who is unchanging and whose love and goodness is unending, but we inhabit a world that is being buffeted by severe storms and we are not immune from those stormy blasts. Our response is not to hunker down in the hope that how we did it fifty years ago will serve us well now. Instead, secure in the promise that underneath are the everlasting arms, we strain to hear the new song that the creative Spirit of God is singing. Then we pick up our instruments or open our lips and sing and play along. We may not be always in tune and sometimes we will miss the beat but, if we are open to the music of the Spirit, it will be a glorious noise.
Ven Matthew Parker
Archdeacon of Stoke-upon-Trent