by the Revd Tim Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark and Member of General Synod
‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’ John 10.9
The theologian and author Martin Laird shares a story of walking across a moor with a friend who had four dogs. As they walked, three of the dogs would run out across the moor, leaping over creeks and chasing rabbits and joyfully exploring their environment. But one of the dogs would only run in a small circle right in front of his owner. No matter how many miles they walked or how far afield the other dogs went, this dog would only run in a tight circle very close to them. Laird asked him why, and he replied:
“This dog was kept for his entire life prior to coming to me in a very small cage. His body has left the cage, but his mind still carries it with him. For him, the world outside the cage does not exist, and so no matter how big and beautiful the moor, he will never run out across it. I bring him here so he can breathe the fresh air, but he’s still running circles in his cage.”
During this season of pandemic I have found that many of my own mental cages have been well and truly rattled, and their gates have been flung open.
My parents live a considerable distance away and are both in their late 70s. I have noticed how this pandemic has drawn my attention far more keenly to their vulnerability and focused on my desire to be alongside and support them through this bewildering and unprecedented time.
Though, in our pre-pandemic age, my parents had embraced modern technology up to a point, it has taken our present lockdown for me to encourage them to embrace video formats such as FaceTime and Zoom as a means of communication. As a result it has been deeply reassuring not just to hear that they are both in good health, but to see that they are both in good health as well. These video conversations have brought us so much closer and have been as much a support to me as they have for my parents.
But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and step up and help my parents embrace video communication?
Since my ordination I have dutifully said the daily offices, with one or two members of the congregation, and I have understood that part of my priestly ministry is to say the daily offices on behalf of my parish and worshipping community as they go out to love and serve the Lord, living out their priestly ministries in the workplace, in the home or whatever context they find themselves.
But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and acknowledge that, through our online worship, many of our worshipping communities wish for a similar rhythm, a daily space and reminder to place God at the very centre of all that they do? Why had I only offered my parishioners the church building as the place for these daily services when I knew that it was not feasible or possible for so many to access the church during the week? I knew before the pandemic that the daily offices could be brought into their homes, their digital devices and to their places of work, so why did it take a pandemic for me to act?
As the Disability Advisor for the Southwark Diocese, I have the privilege of being alongside people of extraordinary faith who have all too often been denied access to their local parish worshipping communities. I have observed the existence of online church before this crisis, but I have also heard the cries of frustration of so many who, through no fault of their own, find themselves excluded from their local parish church community.
But why did it take a pandemic for me to respond to my rattled cage and seek to bring the worship of the local parish church to those who are unable to be physically present and in doing so to actively create opportunities and spaces for all to serve and to minister, regardless of age and ability?
It has become patently clear. I cannot and will not go back to how things were. These cages have been rattled and their gates have been flung open. I do not want to be like the fourth dog, I wish to run out across the moor, and be open to new horizons, new possibilities.
The Church of England is going to be a very different church when we finally all return to our church buildings. For too long we have built cages around ourselves to feel safe and secure. The pandemic has forced us to respond to Jesus’ invitation to open the gates of our cages and relate to the world as it is, rather than as we would want it to be. As Jesus says in John 10.9, ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’
Jesus is the gate out of our many cages, out of our hardened hearts. As we finally accept this, that Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle, and love, may we as a church be empowered to step out of our cages and boldly embrace the ‘new normal’ with confidence and hope, rather than retreat back into cages of fear and cynicism.
I for one don’t want to retreat back into my own old familiar cages once this pandemic is done. And neither do I want the Church of England to do so either. As the saying goes, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.” As we journey through this pandemic together, God is clearly revealing to us that he loves us far too much to leave us as we are.
 Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land. Oxford University Press 2006, page 19