by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Author, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
In France, apparently, one of the biggest worries about lockdown was how single Parisienne women would cope: all alone in a small flat and no partner. No dates, no secret affairs, no sex. All the assumptions were that these women would go into melt down. The framework of their lives and their relationships had been undone – it would not end well.
Turns out many young single women in France have loved the shutdown. All the hectic man- (or woman-) pleasing internal drivers had been challenged. They enjoyed freedom from the pressure to have sex, they swapped sophistication for simplicity, they got in touch with how to be self contained and not dependent their partner. To everyone’s surprise it is OK – more than OK, it is very good.
It is possible that as we emerge from isolation some of this self discovery will remain and the young single French woman will have a better life.
This tale is an example of what Richard Rohr describes in The Wisdom Pattern as the process we are always experiencing in life, but which is technicolour at the moment: Order, Disorder, Reorder.
Order is the pattern we thought we knew. The familiar. Some of us loved it, some of us found it had dark and controlling elements that needed change, but it was what we knew. It was life as we had learnt to live it.
Then came the big Disorder. Present joys became past memories. Of course we fear it. Not just for the physical danger, but because it feels like anarchy. It teeters on the edge of chaos, of total melt down. We fear getting sucked into a vortex of unknowing.
Let’s be honest here; both in society and within the Church at large we were already struggling. Struggling with the age of Quantum Physics where what we thought was linear and certain was, it transpires, nothing of the sort.
Mystery, not knowing, holding multiple truths – all this was stretching our religious imagination. Around the edges interesting thinkers were rediscovering ineffable, unknowable layers of faith, whilst at the centre some pretty desperate measures were being taken to sure up the literal against the flow away from certainty .
Now of course everything is virtual. Even the bread and wine. We shouldn’t be surprised. Pentecost tells us the virtual world is vibrant and powerful. Jesus is very much with us but we can’t see or touch him.
This period of Disorder might be all sorts of things. It’s too soon to tell. What we can see is that the biggest mistake the church made in its response to Covid-19 was rooted in fear of chaos.
As a society we have a contract with one another. We elect leaders who make decisions which some like and some dislike, but mostly we obey even the rules we think are mistaken. So our Government tells us what to do, and although we are not all confident that the best decisions are being made we abide by the rules.
In the Church of England it seems our leaders thought the church worked this way too.
Mimicking the Government they issued rules and regulations, forgetting that their relationship with their flock is different. They do not rule over us, but rather are shepherds whose calling is to offer hope and inner depth and strength through our faith in God.
A bewildered nation expected words of lament, of comfort, of inspiration. Alas, although they were there, they got drowned out by the micro-management of Church buildings. We actually only needed to be told to apply the same rules as everyone else!
So it fell to the local to inhabit the Disorder and it has done so in many wonderful ways. The edges between church and community got lovely and smudgy and people lived their faith by loving and helping one another. Some may think virtual services are a bit naff and amateurish but they are rather gloriously filled with heart and courage.
Well, one day we will realise that the era of Covid-19 has passed. A Reordering has happened. Most people will want to go back to how it was before but of course that cannot be.
I can tell you how I would like the new order to look. How I would love the church to be where every human being is loved and valued equally. Where anyone who was in any way different from the majority need never fear rejection or judgement from other Christians. I would love to see the choking tendrils of power, politics, entitlement, the class system to be unwrapped from around the heart of the Church of England. Where those who had been abused received loving care and just restoration. I would love to see us less obsessed by ourselves and more obsessed by our neighbour. As you might imagine I could go on…….
What I think will happen is that we will make every good effort to carry on as before – and slowly the truth will emerge. The financial model, already strained to breaking point will prove unsustainable. Quite possibly the church in every parish model is bust. The trust of the people in a National Church, already horribly compromised by its internal moral failure to treat LGBTI+ people, women or abuse survivors honourably is gone forever and its place on the national and political stage will be seriously challenged.
There will need to be a journey, probably accelerated by this crisis, which will involve letting go of a model of the Church of England which was probably always a fantasy anyway.
I would like to think that a leaner, healthier, more equal community will emerge – a church that is much closer to the poorest, most marginalised in our society. More present in housing estates across the country and less bound up in Bishop’s palaces and London clubs.
I don’t think this is impossible, indeed God could well be in this new destination. I fear, however, that for many, it will hurt like hell to get there.