by the Ven Peter Leonard, Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, Chair of OneBodyOneFaith and Member of General Synod
Like many others I have experienced a ‘Corona Coaster’ of emotions during lockdown. One day I’m coping and am positive and on other days it simply seems black and I just want to hide away. I’ve known for some time I would be writing this, and I have thought and prayed about it, resulting in a dozen different ideas for what it could look like and what it would try to say. It has proved to be one of the most difficult pieces to actually commit to paper and I suspect this is because I am grappling with some really unpalatable truths that perhaps I have not been completely honest about before. Has the current pandemic highlighted the deep divisions which exist within the institutional church and is it too flawed to be rescued? Has the Anglican ability to ‘fudge’ issues finally run out of credibility?
The church has also been on a corona coaster of ups and downs. I’ve seen churches work closely with local communities to support the most vulnerable through a range of practical and spiritual ways. Faith has been lived out and worship offered to God by caring for the sick, the lonely and the vulnerable.
There has also been unhealthy levels of competition and judgment between clergy and others in terms of the worship they have offered online or offline and the service they have given to their community. There have been deeply unpleasant and very public arguments on social media about whether churches should be open or not and the significance of our buildings. Even during a global pandemic, homophobia remains a given in the church and I wrote about this here. Most recently the appalling murder of George Floyd in the USA brings us face to face once again with the systemic racism which we cannot hide from in our own country and church.
So, what is it that I am suggesting we don’t go back to? I don’t want us to go back to simply putting up with these divisions and injustices. I don’t want us to go back to being dishonest about them and pretending that they aren’t there or that they aren’t massively significant, deeply damaging and part of the reason so many people do not want to engage with the church institution in its current form.
As Chair of OneBodyOneFaith I insist on positive campaigning, not simply bemoaning our lot but suggesting and living out ways for things to be better. What do I need to say to drag myself out of this ‘pit of despair’ I have landed in? The answer for me is in the story of the early followers of Jesus in Acts chapter 2. Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit we read that the followers of Jesus:
42 …devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
They were devoted to each other, a strong word which implies a deep commitment and level of relationship. These people sold their possessions to support those most in need, creating a way of living which ensured everyone had enough. What are the depths of relationships in our churches? Are we devoted to each other and what would that look like if we were?
They also devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Learning assumes two things, that we don’t know everything and that we can be better. When a church community or leader assumes they know everything then power and people are abused. We are constantly learning including our faith and our knowledge and experience of God. We have to learn to express, to proclaim and live out our faith, the gospel, afresh in each generation. We now find within our generation we need to work out what faith means in a pandemic situation and in the aftermath of it.
This is a picture of a local community with a way of life so attractive that people were drawn to it and wanted to be part of it. And let’s be honest – who wouldn’t want to be part of it? This is a church who:
- were devoted to one another
- wanted to learn and improve
- cared for one another and ensured everyone had enough
- worshipped together, in the temple and in their own homes – every day!
- and ate together – they were generous, and they were glad
Perhaps my difficulty in writing this is acknowledging that I am part of a church institution which has too often failed to live like that.
I don’t want to go back to propping up an institution which is flawed, which too often ignores injustice and sometimes even perpetuates it. I want to go back to being a follower of the way. I want to live my life based on the life of Jesus Christ with love at the core, the very heart of everything.
Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life. I want to follow that way, live by that truth and receive that life.