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


  1. Thanks Rosemary and Philip for the blogs which have always been very interesting. I definitely did not know about King John's dispute! Tony

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