Many are seeking to understand the consequences for the country in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are voices arguing for a return to the tried and tested ways which have a familiarity about them. Others argue for a radical re-orientation of life for every part of society: the old cisterns are broken and cannot be repaired. What is now needed, it is argued, is nothing less than a fresh expression of life itself engaging society with new priorities and new focus.
Much of the discourse has taken place beneath the title the ‘new normal’ and has settled into a quiet acceptance of the appropriateness of the phrase as a proper and adequate articulation with which to work. Is it? In this paper I want to explore this phrase in relation to the church primarily but also inquire whether it could generate emphases which have wider relevance for society.
The word ‘new’ is deeply malleable. It lacks specificity. In this context, ‘new’ usually means ‘different’. We speak about what ‘will be’ one day, sometime, somehow as though it will be sufficiently different from what ‘was’, to mark it as ‘new’. When ‘new’ is understood primarily as an economic development it will rightly face criticism that it perpetuates a way of understanding capitalism that has little regard for the environment. The never ending drive for progress and growth can be exploitative and violent, offering the powerful a way of becoming more powerful. In fact, there might be good arguments for less of the ‘new’ and a re-appropriation of some of the ‘old’ if there is a wisdom to be found here. While this will be regarded by some as another example of an institution constantly looking back to a so-called golden era, it does keep alive the possibility that every shift and progression ought not to be well regarded and fully accepted. The referencing of opening the wells in Genesis 26:18 might not be a sufficient ground upon which to found every proposal for change but it is suggestive in the way it addresses deficit with something different from development in the name of progress. This ancient story with its undertones of hostility and entrenched disagreement raises questions about the way we honestly name our disputes and whether anything like a complete resolution of these is possible before we return to what once brought life and blessing.
The voices arguing that Covid-19 allows an economic rebuild which is distinctly ‘green’ appear to be losing ground to those who argue the economic plight and challenges are so great that the environmental challenge needs to take second place to the need for any economic recovery. The force of this argument is real and powerful and present in the negotiations regarding new trade deals following our exit from the European Union. It addresses the immediate issue of national finance, employment and essential services. For the Church, facing issues about who will return to public worship in any numbers, the fragility of our volunteer base and financing ongoing ministry, the drivers are different but no less real.
The axiom might be instructive here: with every challenge there is opportunity. What the church has in abundance are of course property and space, specifically churches and churchyards. In the case of the latter, these spaces are sometimes cared for lovingly by a local church or community group but are also often neglected. The re-wilding movement (and recently rewilding of church life) even if not universally welcomed, has reminded a society that diversity is not only a good ordering of nature but an opportunity for engaging those who have not participated in either church or community life. The opportunity to experiment appropriately with churchyards, with specific wilding and environmental intent could prove to be one of the most exciting opportunities we could provide as a church. There are examples aplenty where this has been tried and been welcomed. It is unlikely to be expensive, it will invite stakeholder participation, it will model good stewarding and show faith in action.
At a purely pastoral level, the way we care for churchyards might say something not only about our care for the living, for relatives but also what we believe about the resurrection.
If the above has some new merit in relation to churchyards, the same could be true of church buildings. The invitation is to move from seeing the space as a gathering point of the faithful to an arena in which tradition is re-imagined, history and wisdom re-appropriated. And this for the whole community and not the community of faith only. When we consider that most of our churches remain closed during the week, the challenge to every church community is significant.
The potential outreach for buildings to be places of new story-telling, centres whose internal space (without deep violation of rules and regulations) can describe and facilitate new faith and new ministry calls for a better imagination and courage than has been shown in the last 50 years but this is perfectly achievable if the leadership is willing to be bold, courageous and to see re-describe how it understands its ministry.
Many will regard such a development as aberrant and urge an end to such revisionism. Exactly who will stand at the grave and weep the passing of something is not yet clear. We ought to ensure as Christian disciples it is not the very thing which brings lifeblood and energy to a world in need of good news.
If there are lessons for the church and a good reordering of life and energy, this might be true as well for much of society. It is unlikely to feature on any party manifesto nor clinch the win at the ballot box, but isn’t the re-discovery of neighbourliness one of the good outcomes of the pandemic? The example of communities working together for the sake of the vulnerable and disadvantaged? These are not ‘new’, they are ancient virtues which need to be constantly rediscovered and renewed in each generation.
But there is another ‘old’ to be rediscovered here and it centres on the renewed interest in pilgrimage. Pioneers of pilgrim theology have reminded us that the journey is as important as the arrival and that life is, by its nature, more transitory, changing and unfolding than the settled order which comes from habit and regular life pattern. The idea that we might never enjoy again anything which could be regarded as ‘normal’ will be deeply threatening to some but it might be true that discontinuous change and rapid shift deprives society and therefore the church of this reality forever. The witness of the church to this dynamic ought not to be understated because it will resonate with a society which, without any religious narrative, understands again that life is deeply uncertain and shifting. The Christian story however is that we do not journey alone. The invitation is to walk with God through ‘all the changing scenes of life’. This is to offer some anchorage on the journey or more appropriately some companionship and potentially some direction.
The witness of the church to this dynamic will need to be re-discovered by the church too. If buildings are offered as places of discovery and experimentation, the internal life of the church might need to be expressed more outside of these buildings in smaller groups, with new emphasis on the interface between a society largely indifferent to church if interested in values and the spiritual. Outside the structed stones, the church might learn to rediscover its pilgrim DNA and how it exists to share good news in word and deed. The experience of the pandemic has hinted at a church quite capable of being light-footed and quick to respond to change. The impetus for this will not be largely economic but the costs of heating and lighting buildings for relatively short periods of time is considerable.
In this paper I have sight to explore some of the dynamics which might be in play at this time. I have focused on the phrase ‘new normal’ and attempted to illustrate its shortcomings as a way of attempting to understand our current situation. I have suggested that the crisis highlighted and occasioned by Covid-19 invites a reappraisal of some virtues which could be regarded by some as ‘old fashioned’ but in the context of church life might be explored with wider application. The focus on church as a place in which these things might be best explored is a mark of confidence in the God who makes all things new and a church, always at its best when courageous and listening to the One who says, ‘Follow me’.