Finding our way as a diocese in the time of Covid-19

First published 14th May 2020

Bishop Viv explores what impact Covid 19 might have on the diocese, the church and the future.
This was originally written for a Bishop’s Council meeting on Thursday 7 May.

The Diocese of Bristol has spent some months considering its direction for the future. There were plans to work locally on our values and our culture, and to continue to review progress on Creating Connections. Covid 19 has changed the context for that strategic work. How should we in the Diocese of Bristol respond to that new context?

The national church, lead in this work by the incoming Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, has begun to review its own strategy and the Bishops have agreed it should work with the Anglican Communion’s five marks of mission

The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

On the day of lock-down I was to speak at the cathedral in a Lent series on living in God’s creation. The theme for that evening was to be the Bible’s perspective on water and the tension between water as gift and as threat. The threat of water to bring chaos, to overwhelm life, is present and powerful in scripture from Genesis through to the storms on Lake Galilee, and that theme of chaos casts an interesting light on the threat of Covid 19. It is particularly helpful in understanding the profound impact spiritually and emotionally most of us have experienced within ourselves, those close to us, and in the wider community in the last 8 weeks. Because of that profound impact we will need to take time to discern God’s presence and God’s way.

To shift biblical imagery, we live through ‘in between times’, like those who had left Egypt but not yet crossed into the place they had been promised; like those taken to exile in Babylon and not yet able to return to Jerusalem; like the first followers of Jesus told by their awesomely risen Lord not to rush on in their own strength but to stay in the city until the Spirit was given.

So what are we to do as we wait? Two experienced clergy representing very different traditions wrote to me last week to ask me to call the diocese to prayer. I will determine how best to frame that call as we reflect on the continued medical and economic uncertainty in our nation and the gifts, hopes, needs and (if we are honest) imperfections of our diocese.

We also need to notice what Covid 19 has revealed to us. The days from the announcement of the lockdown on 23 March, through Passiontide, Holy Week and Easter on 12 April saw profound changes in the life of the church in this diocese. Our capability surprised us all. New ways of worshipping, gathering and offering pastoral care began and there was a sense of great achievement. The diocese was supported by the rhythm of the cathedral’s public and prayerful ministry. I am grateful to all my colleagues who worked so hard during this time. We are now at the point where there has been a little time for reflection and I have asked clergy, churchwardens and LLMs to consider the following questions:

  • What has been going well?
  • What do you feel you have lost?
  • What have you learnt?
  • And anything else you would like to tell me as Bishop about your own experience and the experience of your community in recent days.

The feedback will, I hope, enable us to see what is particular about the values and priorities of the Diocese of Bristol, what sort of diocese we are and want to be, and what new ways are already emerging.

In the meantime, I have noted a range of tensions in what I have seen and heard in the last six weeks. No doubt others will see these differently, or have noted others, but what I find heartening is the sense that these tensions are well held within the differences across the diocese and in the complexities of our very different communities. They are tensions which are potentially life-giving. The tensions include:

1) Church as place and church as people

We have enjoyed Dave Walker’s cartoon caption ‘the building is closed, the church is open’ and been amazed at the creativity and skill of those producing streamed or recorded services, sermons, reflections and prayers. We have been gathered for worship without physical walls and so it has been easier for those normally unable to get into the building to join us. We are also discovering that it is easier for those unfamiliar with church to look in. Yet there is a longing to be able to gather physically in the places where prayer has been valid in ‘thin places’ where we sense Christ’s presence.

2)The church as fed by word and sacrament

Many of our churches have continued to teach and proclaim the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, using digital media. But the Bishops agreed that churches must be shut as places where clergy could pray and celebrate the sacraments. The Eucharistic fast which has followed has become increasingly hard for those who have therefore been without spiritual food for the journey through such desolate times. Some of our most faithful parish priests have found the deprivation of the priestly task of praying and breaking bread in church on behalf of their people deeply difficult, and grieve at the loss of the sense of the duty of worship as something we do for God’s sake, not just ours. How should we attend to their perceptions, and those of faithful lay people who while watching Zoom services, have been breaking bread and sharing the cup with their families?

3) Churches with (very) local roots and global reach

From the start of the crisis networks emerged with a particular focus from lockdown at street level where Thursdays’ clap for carers has enabled us to discover our neighbours, and where physical and digital support networks (in rural areas often co-ordinated by the churches) have been established providing supply-lines of kindness. At the same time those joining our digital worship have come from across the globe. One Bristol priest offering a daily eucharist from home (where there had previously been no daily service) has a congregation joined by groups in Melbourne and Middlesbrough. How, in a resource constrained future, will we hold on to the local, along with the global?

4) A diocese of wealth and poverty, and parishes with both

Much of the agility and creativity of our churches has been made possible by digital means. This is a diocese which is digitally skilled. But the digital divide in our diocese is acute. Clergy and lay people in areas where few have access to phones or computers have worked valiantly to distribute orders of service by post and phone parishioners by landline. This digital exclusion has a serious impact on the provision of education during lock down. There is hunger amongst children in parts of Bristol, partly because of school closures. Demand on food banks has risen rapidly.  The death rate nationally to Covid 19 is double in the poorest wards compared to the richest, and that is likely to be replicated in this diocese. There is, across the diocese, an increased sense of the need of the poorest, and the calling to attend to that need. What is the implication for priorities in this diocese?

5) Prayerfulness which is aware both of the present moment and future hopes

There has been a new balance struck between contemplation and action, being and doing. The lockdown has required many of us to slow down and to attend to the present moment. There has been an intensity in our attentiveness to the beauty of this spring and also the horror of the impact of Covid 19. And there has been a determination to build back better, particularly ensuring that those ‘on the front line’ are better recognised, that God’s creation and its diversity are better conserved and restored, that those who are poorest do not have to suffer disproportionately from the coming austerity. How do we work to hold together contemplation and action in this diocese? Is there a need for a rule of life we create and keep together?

There have, for all of us, been moments when we have felt overwhelmed by the chaos of Covid 19. Those moments will continue. There has also been much thinking about what the church should be and offer in the future, and much experiment. The Bishop’s Council had begun to consider changes in this diocese. Those will be much greater than we thought. We had wanted to create a future collaboratively with the parishes of the diocese. Many parishes have already begun to consider the future and are in touch with my office. Clergy have begun to face the possibilities of major change. We did not want Covid 19, but by the grace of God, in Christ we are beginning to find hope and new life even in its turmoil. 

+Viv Bristol

Eastertide 2020

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