Ministry in this strange new land

Mark Ireland writes: Last night in my role as archdeacon I inducted a new Vicar to his new Lancashire parishes behind closed doors. Instead of a packed church of congregation, community and friends from previous parishes, there were just three churchwardens, the priest’s spouse, the patron and the bishop – all sitting spaced as far apart as possible in a cavernous space filled with empty pews. In this setting the traditional place in the service where the priest rings the bell to tell the parish they have a new priest took on extra significance. In fact the priest rang the bell so vigorously that he broke the bell-rope!

We are living in disorienting days. As churches we have always worked hard to overcome social isolation, to overcome loneliness, to bring communities together. Now we must encourage people to keep apart, and not to come to worship except in the smallest of groups.

There is a profound sense of exile in all this, and so it is that we can turn to the Scriptures for strength, as the Israelites, with their profound sense of place and of the centrality of the Temple, had to work out how to worship when the temple had been destroyed and they were distanced and isolated from all that was familiar. ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ asks the Psalmist (137.4).

Daniel, as an exile living in Babylon, gives us an interesting glimpse of how the home became the place of prayer and worship for those who could no longer go to the temple. In Daniel 6.10 we read how Daniel ‘continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open towards Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.’ We have much we can learn from our Jewish friends today, for whom the home and the family meal table is as much a place of worship and prayer as the synagogue.

One encouraging thing we know about the exile in the Old Testament is that it was a time of profound spiritual renewal. It was the time when God’s people went back to their founding stories, it was the time when much of the OT as we currently have it took final shape. When eventually they returned to the Promised Land they lived differently. They left behind the worship of idols and returned single-heartedly to worship God, but in a different way.

My prayer for each local church is that we may use this time of exile to rethink how we are church for a new generation. The world is changing faster than we ever knew. Naturalists tell us that the survival of any species depends on its ability to adapt and change more quickly than the environment around it. The same is true of that living organism which is the Church of God. If we simply focus our hopes for after corona on restarting everything the way it was before, the painful experience of exile will have been wasted.

In that strange induction service last night I decided to record parts of the service on my phone to share for those who couldn’t be there. Having posted last night the recording of the bishop’s sermon and the institution itself on the diocesan FB page, I was surprised to discover this morning that the video had already been viewed 450 times – by more people than would otherwise have been in church. I am already pondering what we can learn from this for the future after the virus.

So in these disorienting times let us ask God to give us grace to live hopefully in this time of exile, to listen for his voice, that we might in due time return from exile a changed people, ready to do church differently, that we might reach a changed community with the unchanging Gospel of Christ.

And as we listen for the voice of God, what might he have to say to us about the world as well as about the church? In particular about our care for creation?

The grounding of flights, slow-down in the economy and the closing of factories is, strangely, giving a profound rest to the earth. After decades in which we have over-produced, over-consumed, over exploited the earth, and failed to agree any effective means to reduce our carbon output, suddenly change is being forced upon us. Rest for the earth is a constant refrain in the Old Testament, as the nation is commanded to give the land rest every seventh year and every jubilee. This current crisis is an opportunity for us to hear the cry of the earth, and with it God’s call to live gently upon the earth, and to reduce our consumption, so that the earth might flourish for future generations until the Lord returns.

Suddenly many of us find huge amounts of unexpected time in our diaries, as events, meetings and holidays are cancelled. The Book of Hebrews speaks of a sabbath rest for the people of God – ‘There remains then a Sabbath-rest for the people of God…let us therefore make every effort to enter into that rest…’ (6.9, 11)

How will we use the time that we suddenly have? It will be easy to fill it with fret and worry, and to give in to loneliness and fear. Instead, as Christians how can we ‘make every effort to enter into God’s rest’, to make these new spaces a sabbath in the biblical sense – a time for rest, a time for relationship, a time for God? We need time and stillness to hear God more than ever when everything around us is so uncertain.

We hear much at present about being guided by the science. Science has many answers but it does not provide us with a moral code. As government goes into survival-mode we need to affirm loudly that the test of how Christian a society is how do we care for the most vulnerable, not how do we protect the most productive. Jesus’ whole ministry shows his care for the poor the marginalised and those whom society did not value.

One small example is the local foodbank. The ministry of foodbanks will be more and more important in the days ahead, and yet there have been signs of donations dropping as people hold onto things for their own needs. One of the heartening things I am hearing from local clergy though is the creativity of many churches that are beginning to plan for how to feed hungry children when school is cancelled next week, and how to establish contact with vulnerable elderly who must self-isolate for their own safety.

I was at a free church recently where the minister ended the service with this dismissal: ‘The worship is over, the service begins.’ For us in the Church of England, the Church for England, the worship is over, but the service begins.

Mark Ireland is Archdeacon of Blackburn in the Diocese of Blackburn.

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19 thoughts on “Ministry in this strange new land”

  1. It is interesting how Scripture gets processed. Following on from Nick Moore’s piece, here is another suggestion that Daniel provides an analogue for not worshipping God collectively and in public. Presumably accepting that Daniel is a 6th-century document, not a 2nd-century forgery, Mark reads Dan 6:10-11 as indicating that ‘the home became the place of prayer and worship’. Actually, for pre-Exile Israel the home was always a place of prayer and worship – there were no churches or synagogues, while the Temple was attended by the general public only at times of festival. In the New Testament context, the physical temple no longer exists. Christians together are the temple, and therefore we meet together to worship, whether in homes or in public buildings, declaring to the world that God is our God. What Daniel models for us is a refusal to give up worshipping God, even though the government tells him he must. Why has this context been ignored? Indeed, in response to being forbidden to worship the true God, he opens the windows so that everyone can hear. The application is that we should not give up worshipping God even if the government tells us not to.

    Christians in persecuted countries understand this well. They do not qualify the command to worship their Saviour by adding “only if it’s safe – our lives are more important”. One day all the earth will be compelled to worship him (Ps 22:27, Isa 2:3, 45:23 and many other scriptures). There has never been a more urgent need to proclaim in public that very thing. More than ever we need to be praying as one visible body, interceding for church and nation. What a bitter irony that we are disregarding Matt 4:10 in this time of Lent. For the first time in all history, the churches over Easter will be empty. Why do we not see how serious this is?

    • Thanks for highlighting this. I know that Mark Ireland’s parting sentiment is well-intended, but it’s almost an insult to God to state that, “For us in the Church of England, the Church for England, the worship is over, but the service begins.”

      For Christian, the worship should never be over. Ireland’s statement sets up a false dichotomy, since worship and service are mutual concomitants.

      Yet, to little avail, I’ve repeatedly challenged CofE clergy to clarify the pastoral and theological implications for ‘gathered church’ of temporarily suspending public worship.

      Concerning, public worship, you rightly declare: “There has never been a more urgent need to proclaim in public that very thing. More than ever we need to be praying as one visible body, interceding for church and nation.”

      In particular, Christ Himself instructs the faithful to invoke (before God and man) the significance of the Lord’s death through Holy Communion until He returns.

      Yet, conceiving that ordained clergy are indispensable to the Lord’s Supper, one writer has asserted: “We should trust the sovereignty and providence of God. If for a time we cannot receive the Supper, God knows and he remains able to feed and sustain his people on the Living Word. He will not allow us to starve even if we cannot eat the Eucharistic bread.

      May this famine of Holy Communion increase our taste and hunger for it! Who knows how long we will have to go without?”

      However, there is no good reason why we should go without. We are still permitted to go for a walk. So, why can’t we be creative in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, as part of a ‘Walk of Witness’, with each participant maintaining social distancing, but (to prevent possible contamination) each bringing their own elements.

      Instead, as if the decline in usual Sunday attendance wasn’t embarrassing enough, clergy are resorting to the ignominious spectator-worship of live-streaming communion by extension, the value of which amounts to no more than a veritable cure for insomnia!

      Richard Hooker himself explained: “That God…hath in the like abundance of mercy ordained certain to attend upon the due execution of the requisite parts and offices therein prescribed for the good of the whole world, which men thereunto do hold their authority from him whether they be such as himself immediately or as the Church in his name invest it is neither possible for all nor for every man without distinction to take upon him a charge of so great importance.”

      As with emergency baptisms, in other emergencies (including coronavirus), the divine alternative to ordained ministry “as the Church in his name invests” is resorting to lay ministry which (as Hooker explained) is authorised, i.e. “as Himself immediately”.

      What’s unacceptable is the notion that, in such exceptional circumstances as we have today, the consecration and distribution of Holy Communion is prevented by the spatial distancing of ordained clergy.

      • I know that Mark Ireland’s parting sentiment is well-intended, but it’s almost an insult to God to state that, “For us in the Church of England, the Church for England, the worship is over, but the service begins.”

        I think you are being a bit too literal David. *In context* Mark is very very clearly emphasising that the worship of God involves a lot more than just “temple worship”. His theme, surely, is that our worship of god has to be shown in the ways in which we respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and the weakest in this strange, unprecedented time. To find ways of keeping the appearance of worship going as a witness is one thing. But perhaps more powerful will be the ways in which we emphasise our love of God by offering ‘worship’ as the love of our neighbours in Christ.

        • “But perhaps more powerful will be the ways in which we emphasise our love of God by offering ‘worship’ as the love of our neighbours in Christ.”

          Indeed. which is why I wrote that his statement was “well-intended” and also wrote that “worship and service are mutual concomitants”.

          From your above statement, (apparently) you agree with this.

          • I do. The bit I don’t agreed with is your comment about ‘almost an insult to God’. I think that’s to totally misunderstand his point.

          • Point taken. However, by ‘almost’, I was highlighting that, as written, such a turn of phrase, however well-intended, conveys a grossly distorted dichotomy.

            A bit like the Mormon saying: “Work as if everything depends on you; pray as if everything depends on God.”

    • Thank you Steven for taking time to reflect on my piece. You helpfully draw out an ambiguity in my expression by pointing out that pre-exile the home was certainly ‘a place of prayer and worship’. However my point (clearly not well enough expressed!) was that in the exile the home became ‘the place of prayer and worship’ – it would have been clearer if I had put ‘the’ in italics. I also share acutely your pain that churches will not be full of people this Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and his victory over sin and death.

      However I disagree with your exegesis of Daniel 6. The context here, in verses 4-5, is the jealousy of the administrators and satraps against a man (who was not Babylonian) who was about to be set over a whole kingdom. And so they decide to use his different religion as a way to get him killed. Daniel, however, is not intimidated and continues to worship God openly in his home three times a day ‘just as he had done before’ (v10).

      The current coronavirus emergency is not about a conspiracy to kill a man, it is a strategy to save human life. The Archbishops’ guidance is not about preventing people from praying to God (heaven forbid!). They are very actively encouraging people to pray and to worship, but simply not together, so that they do not unwittingly pass on a virus which has the power to kill. Keeping social isolation is emphatically not saying worship God ‘only if it’s safe – our lives are more important’ as you suggest. Keeping social isolation is rather the realisation that each one of us may be carrying a deadly disease without realising it, and taking care not to bring death to others.

      It is good to remember the courage of the persecuted church down the centuries, and as a student of church history I know that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ However your analogy is, I would suggest, incorrect. Christian martyrs (in history and today) by their witness were/are willing to endanger their own lives, not the lives of others more vulnerable than themselves – which is what we might be doing if encouraged other people to gather together for worship in public assembly.

      I think a more apt story to mediate on at this time is that of the plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire. When the deadly plague was brought into their village – unwittingly by others bringing cloth from London – the villagers took the courageous and self-sacrificing decision to self isolate, to ensure that they would not in turn pass the disease on. Their self isolation undoubtedly saved many lives, and contained the infection.

      You mention that there has never been a more urgent time to proclaim the Gospel. What has been inspiring in my work this week has been to see the creativity of Christians opening their church buildings daily for prayer (many of which were previously locked midweek) and finding new ways to proclaim the Good News of Christ through Facebook and live-streaming, and on radio. I mentioned in my post that more people had heard Bishop Philip’s sermon online, than would have done if the service had been open to the public. Surveys tell us that the biggest radio audience on a Sunday morning is local radio, and this morning Archbishop Justin led an act of worship which was broadcast on every local radio station in the country, as well as on Radio 4. The challenge, which I think we are only beginning to adjust to, is that now more people are probably hearing the Gospel who weren’t previously churchgoers than those who were.

      Like you I long and ache for the day when I can worship together again in a vast crowd that will be a foretaste of heaven, but until we can do so without the risk of passing on a deadly infection, I will use every other means available to make known the unchanging Gospel of Christ.
      Churches are being actively encouraged

  2. Italy has suffered worst in Europe and reports the highest number of deaths. The average age at death in the case of deaths linked to the virus is 78.5 (though a higher figure has also been reported).
    The ratio of male to female deaths is 8:5. The average life expectancy is 80.5 for men and 84.9 for women. Weighted for the above ratio, the average is 82.2.

    Thus, for those catching the virus, average life expectancy falls from 82.2 to 78.5.
    For those who do not catch the virus, average life expectancy remains the same.

    Statistics for other countries are hard to come by. As of 4 March, when the death toll in the USA stood at 105 (, the average age of those who died with the virus was 81. The average life expectancy for those who do not have the virus is 78.9.

    There is an interesting piece on the BBC site, ‘Coronavirus deaths: what we don’t know.’
    The experts are not comparing like for like. The figure of 8000 flu deaths every year is over and above normal mortality. The actual and projected figures for coronavirus are simply the number of deaths linked to coronavirus. The above arithmetic helps to answer that question.

    The virus is undoubtedly more virulent than flu. But the mass panic – ordinary members of the public clearing out supermarkets at one end, politicians and bishops manifesting the same mentality as they bring about or assent to the bankrupting of the economy and the closing down of churches and all meeting places – does seem to hark back to the time when authorities were all convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

    We have long been living in a never-never land, consuming the resources of the planet with no thought for tomorrow – letting future generations pay for our knowing exacerbation of climate change, racking up a national debt of £1.7 trillion. We are now set to double that. I think questions should be asked.

    • This is a link to a 10-minute video from the pulmonologist (clinical lung specialist) Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, followed by my synopsis.

      There are about 100 flu-causing viruses. Virologists used not to be interested in having tests for them, because there were so many and they keep on evolving. Recently we have developed tests for about 8-10 of them.

      Why did the virus break out in Wuhan? Because Wuhan has the biggest safety laboratory for viruses in the whole of China. They found a new type and announced it to the world. In Berlin, which keeps a global database, virologists devised a test for the new variant. A protocol for the test was submitted to the WHO, and because of the panic in China it was accepted without the usual validation procedures. The test does not tell you how dangerous the virus is. For that, you need to survey an entire population and determine ‘excess mortality’.

      In Germany 20,000-30,000 deaths are attributable to flu. Around 10% of flu viruses are coronavirus. Hence, had tests been done specifically for that virus in previous years, annually 2000-3000 people would probably have been found to die from coronavirus. (1) We are nowhere near those numbers at the moment. (2) The numbers being reported do not establish that death was from this specific virus rather than from the other 90% that cause respiratory illness.

      Medical researchers (e.g. Imperial College) have a vested interest in talking such things up. They want to feel important and have political influence; they need funds for their projects. In Wodarg’s opinion, the idea that we are dealing with a virus that, without draconian action, will kill tens of milllions is an emperor without clothes.

  3. Christians in persecuted countries understand this well. They do not qualify the command to worship their Saviour by adding “only if it’s safe – our lives are more important”.

    This isn’t a very reasonable comparison. While I have sympathy with what you are saying here and in a previous post on the subject in this situation it is not just the worshipers’ health and lives which are at stake. We are asked to cease from gathering together for the good of the community, for the sake of the most vulnerable who will be most at risk if/when the nhs runs out of intensive are beds.
    If we ignore advice, continue to meet and spread the virus it is possible someone from outside the church could be despatched prematurely to a Christless eternity

    • Only a week or two ago, the advice was to keep 1-2 m apart, use disinfectant gel and not offer refreshments. The church I went to kept that guidance to the letter. The authorities were telling us then that the virus was only transmitted by physical contact or exposure to coughing or sneezing. Just a week later, that was not considered good enough, though I did not pick up the reason why. It is not clear to me that gathering to worship under these conditions would imperil either ourselves or the rest of society. Regarding the latter eventuality, no one is meeting anyone socially at the moment.

  4. Apart from the churches being closed, even with our church You Tube service and (“zoom” midweek groups) today is like a Sabbath/Sunday of old, of my youth: there’s nobody about.
    While there has been viral- war- time- talk, although I wasn’t alive during it, I understand there was a National Day of prayer on Sunday 26 May 1940, during WW2, over the Dunkirk rescue, called by King George V1.
    How unlike anything today. National apostasy? Waning CoE influence, relevance, nationally?

    • Go to the BBC website and search on prayer, God, church, Christianity, Jesus, Christ or faith and see if you can find a recent article, or any positive article beyond the 05.43 a.m. Prayer for the Day on Radio 4. A few regional articles may have slipped through if you hunt hard enough. See also if the rainbows appearing in schools are referenced to the Noah story, though this may just be ignorance.
      Read the signs of the times!

  5. Apart from the churches being closed, even with our church You Tube service and (“zoom” midweek groups) today is like a Sabbath/Sunday of old, of my youth: there’s nobody about.
    While there has been viral- war- time- talk, although I wasn’t alive during it, I understand there was a National Day of prayer on Sunday 26 May 1940, during WW2, over the Dunkirk rescue, called by King George V1.
    How unlike anything today. National apostasy? Waning CoE influence, relevance, nationally?

  6. I would link Sabbath rest and the slow down in so many aspects of daily life which, as Mark Ireland says, leaves many of us with unplanned blanks in our diaries to suggest that a home retreat is a good way to use some of the time we may have. Yes we can and should work to support and care for the vulnerable, but over recent years the church has often bowed down to the idol of busyness, full diaries and ‘important meetings with important people. ‘ instead we can step aside from some of those pressures and allow God’s presence to shape and unsettle us a little bit. Just a thought .

  7. I was really impressed withe the ABC’s Mothering Sunday service from Lambeth Palace.
    Both my wife and I came away uplifted by it. What I like about the Anglican liturgy is that it says all that needs to be said very succinctly. I particularly liked the Latin and English translations which were well laid out and easy to follow.

    It gave us both a sense of encountering God which is surely what worship services are meant to do.


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