Thursday, July 16, 2020

17 July 2020 | 800 years since lockdown

It’s been over 800 years since churches in England and Wales were last closed and church services suspended. That time it wasn’t because of government regulations, but because King John had fallen out spectacularly with the Pope. It had nothing to do with pandemic or plague, but was, instead, due to King John’s opposition to the Pope’s appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. The King felt that he should have been consulted first. The Pope maintained that it had nothing to do with the King! 
Archbishop Stephen Langton

When King John refused to allow Stephen Langton to be consecrated as Archbishop, Pope Innocent III, unsurprisingly, squared up for a fight. The Pope placed the kingdom under an Interdict and banned the celebration of Mass. Only services of baptism and the last rites were allowed. King John fought back, confiscating the estates of bishops who refused to defy the Pope and celebrate Mass, but to no avail.

You might think our 4 months of church lockdown has felt like a long time, but the lockdown in the early thirteenth-century lasted over 6 years! The Interdict was eventually removed in July 1214, when King John, threatened by rebellious barons and potential French invasion and needing Papal support, finally agreed to give in and accept the new Archbishop.

Once church lockdown finished, there were some outstanding changes in store for our national life. It was just under a year later, in June 2015, that the Magna Carta was signed, first drafted by Archbishop Stephen Langton. The Magna Carta has stood ever since as a symbol of justice, fairness, and human rights. In the great scheme of things, six-years’ church lockdown doesn’t sound too excessive if, in a roundabout way, it ensured the creation of the Magna Carta!

What, we wonder, will be different and what will stay the same as we come out of church lockdown, 800 years later?

For a while church will seem very different. We love to greet each other and ask about each other’s joys and sorrows as we come to worship and as we leave, but we will not have the opportunity to linger and talk to each other. We will have to sit further away from each other. Special services like baptisms, weddings and funerals will be very different for the moment.

Methodism is a church ‘Born in song’ – for us who are used to singing our faith it will be a great hardship not to be allowed to sing our praises together. We may find it very hard to worship in a radically changed setting.

One of the psalms (Psalm 137) recalls the time of exile when people were displaced and captive and wondered how they could worship God in the harsh circumstances they were in, comparing what it was like for them before:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

They weren’t sure they could do it, and you may not find it easy to worship with the current restrictions. One of our Chairs of District, Michaela Youngson, has written a litany, picking up this theme. It begins with these words:

We thought we knew how the world was meant to be,
Day followed night, every week had a Sunday
and that was the day for church.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

and ends with these words:

And now, we know something new.
We only have today with those we love, today is the day
to say ‘I love you’, to mend an argument, to hold on tight.
God is teaching us a new song, for a new land.

This time of lockdown should, above all, have taught us what is important. It has shown us we can adapt, and think in fresh ways. We have already discovered we can worship God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Lockdown has underlined how much every person matters – as Jesus highlighted in his ministry. Plenty has been revealed over the last months of how we need to appreciate others better, acknowledge untiring work, support people in their endeavours on everyone’s behalf, and treat everyone as valuable and made in God’s image, whatever their ethnicity, age or gender. Let’s not lose the insights and new commitments we have gained but, instead, incorporate them into a new song for a new time.

800 years ago, our nation did not return to normal at the end of church lockdown. Thanks to the Magna Carta it was the start of a better normal. What could ‘better normal’ look like for our church and our land today?

This is the last blog in the series we have been writing during church lockdown. We hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them. It has given us the chance to reflect theologically on the pandemic and to make some sense of what has been happening. We are glad that churches can now re-open and look forward to seeing you again in person, whenever a safe return is possible for you. 

Rosemary & Philip

Friday, July 10, 2020

10 July 2020 |!

I’ve been carrying the same £2 coin in my back pocket every day of lockdown. It’s not that I haven’t spent any money. It’s simply that, very unusually, I haven’t spent any cash. Most of my expenditure has been online and I’ve tried to avoid shops as much as I could. Even shops have been preferring, or even insisting on, payment by card. Helpfully, the upper limit for contactless card payments has been raised to £45 during the pandemic. 

© Philip Richter

Maybe this is propelling us, sooner than expected, into a cashless society, in which all payments will be online or by card? Could our coins and banknotes soon become things of the past? It used to be said that only the Queen and very rich people went about without carrying money. But might we all soon be in that situation? It might make us feel more secure, if we had no ‘real money’ to accidentally lose or have stolen. On the other hand, might we begin to lose a sense of the value of money?

Like many of you, I guess, I enjoyed playing shops as a child. There was even a toy cash register, with imitation money, so that pretend customers could pay for their purchases and receive the correct change. I wonder if today’s young children will get a similar glimpse of the value of money as they play together. Will they just imitate their parents and waft their bank card to ‘magically’ make their purchases? To misquote Oscar Wilde, they may not even know ‘the price of everything’, as well as knowing ‘the value of nothing’ (Lady Windermere’s Fan)! In a cashless society, we will need to find new ways of holding on to a sense of the value of money. 

Some people have been spending less during lockdown. Non-essential shops have been shut. If you’ve been working from home or furloughed there has been no expensive daily commute, no take-away coffees, and no lunch to buy. Some people will be having fewer or cheaper holidays and, until recently, there has been nowhere to eat out or visit.

But for others lockdown has been a very precarious time financially. Increased numbers have had to rely on food banks. Certain businesses may not be able to weather the crisis and some individuals are afraid for their job security after furloughing ends. Many charities, including churches, have also seen a significant drop in their income. As a country, we have had to spend massively and greatly increase the national debt in order to save lives and support the economy. It will be some time before we know the full cost of the lockdown and some costs may be hard to pin down – such as erosion of people’s mental wellbeing.

Lockdown has offered the chance to recalibrate our priorities and rediscover – or discover for the very first time – the things that really matter in life. Such things are beyond price, but we are often too busy to notice them until normal life is interrupted in some way. Veteran South African Methodist minister, Peter Storey, an indomitable opponent of apartheid, once suggested in a sermon that: ‘life is like a shop window where somebody has broken in at night and exchanged all the price tags so that the things that are really cheap have been marked most expensive and things that are really valuable are now marked dirt cheap. That’s what life has done... Something has to happen in us to get our values right again’ (With God in the Crucible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

Jesus urged his followers ‘not to store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:19-21). In other words, Jesus invites us to rethink what we most value. Is life all about making money and collecting more and more belongings or does the true meaning of life lie elsewhere? How might we share our resources with those most in need? 

Bank of England - current banknotes image library

John Wesley, one of the founders of our Church, encouraged people to ‘gain all you can… save all you can… and give all you can’ (in his sermon on ‘The Use of Money’). He did what he preached. Exactly 300 years ago this year, Wesley began his studies at Oxford University. As a student at Oxford, he lived on £28 per year (about £3,251 in today’s money – according to the National Archives currency converter). When his earnings increased (in one year to the equivalent of £107,465 today) he still continued to live on the same meagre £28. He told people that if at his death he had more than £10 in his possession, they should call him a robber! John Wesley put his money to good use, developing, for instance, a free health clinic, a school, and a lending agency for the poor. His treasure was where his heart was. When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was a few coins to be found in his pockets and bureau.

Am I imagining things or have our nation’s spending priorities perhaps changed a bit for the better during the pandemic? Will health and social care be better funded going forward? Will the homeless continue to have a roof over their heads? Will we go on making sure that everyone has enough to live on? Only time will tell, but if that’s where your heart is, let’s try to make sure that’s where our treasure is spent, going forward!