It is strange to think that yesterday (April 25th) would have been our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. We would have received reports on the life of the church in the past year, elected churchwardens, PCC members and deanery synod representatives, considered the church’s finances and taken note of the revised electoral roll. It already seems like a world away.
But nonetheless I want to mark the occasion by doing what I do every year – namely to give thanks to so many of you who have served so faithfully in so many ways over the year, some in official capacities, some in small, unseen roles that really only the Lord knows about. I want to thank all those of you who worked so hard in making the Open Church project such a success. I want to thank you for your welcome to Revd Sue and acknowledge her contribution to the life of the church. I want to thank you for your positive and constructive working with St Aubyn’s and it has been so good to see how our partnership there has been developing.
And I know that many of you are still serving in so many ways even in these strange and difficult times. I want to thank the Pastoral Action Team for their hard work in caring for the church family; for the many who are so faithfully praying; for those who are making a real effort to get to grips with strange and new technologies.
I also want to thank you for your generous giving. It is remarkable how each year we see the Lord providing for the needs of the church, and that is only because so many of you show such grace in such sacrificial contributions. I am aware, as I write, that this morning would have been our Annual Gift Day. We will need to keep careful watch on our giving over the next few months. I know that for some it will not be possible to give as much as before; however we still have financial obligations as a church. So if you are able to think about making a gift, or increasing your giving, please do let me know.
In this strange world of lockdown I am also grateful for so many who have responded so positively to the online services, and engage with the small groups and my daily broadcasts. Online worship can never be a substitute for the real thing. However it is humbling to see just how many people engage and I can only trust that the Lord is still using His word to change lives even in such difficult circumstances.
The one thing we must understand is that church life will never “return to normal”, even if normal ever existed. Church from now will be very different, and we must prayerfully and together work out how the Lord is leading us on, and what it will mean to be the body of Christ in a community that will have been deeply, deeply affected on every level by the pandemic.
In the short to medium term it may be that lockdown will be eased, although with a second wave this relaxation of conditions may soon be revoked. However many of our congregation fall into the self-isolating category, or like myself into the category of those socially distancing. Even if we hold services at church, we will need to continue to invest in our online presence, and we need to plan now for how we do this. This will involve investing in new technology and in learning how to use this effectively, and it is likely that even after the crisis is fully past we will continue to develop an online presence.
There will also be great changes as to how we meet to worship. We will need to observe good hygiene, so we will need gatekeepers to make sure everyone washes their hands on exit and entry. The cleaning rota will suddenly take on far more importance. We will not be allowed to hold paper so everything – readings, notices, liturgies – will be on screen. How practically we will take Holy Communion, that is somehow I have not even begun to work out.
Some of these changes will no doubt continue into the long-term, and there will be some changes we can’t even yet anticipate. I believe that when this pandemic is fully over (and that may be a matter of years, not months), there will be such a hunger for human contact and for physical worship we may well see even more people use our buildings. That is why I believe we need to press ahead with our plans to extend the kitchen (which we should note wasn’t able to meet hygiene regulations even before the lockdown) and to provide an additional room for children’s work and prayer.
One very simple reason why we cannot “return to normal” is that we have lost, and may continue to lose, saints who have gone to glory. Again, we will probably have to wait until lockdown is fully lifted until we hold thanksgiving services for those who have so far had only the briefest and smallest of funerals. But I very much hope and pray that at the same time our online presence will eventually lead to others joining us, and we have to remember that no matter what happens Jesus is still Lord of His church, and there are plenty of chapters yet to be written in the story of St Michael and St Barnabas.
Right at the beginning of the outbreak the Lord led me to Ezekiel 37, and the vision of the dry bones. If you have ploughed through the previous 36 chapters, you will see there is an awful amount of death and destruction in this book, and apparently very little hope for God’s people. And what is so striking is that when the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Can these dry bones live?”, Ezekiel doesn’t say, “Of course not, they are dead.” He says, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”. We too need to renew our faith and trust in the resurrection power of Jesus, and trust that He can still bring life out of death.
So as I have been walking the streets of Devonport and Stoke, I have been praying for that same resurrection power to work in our local communities, that through the sharing of his word and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we will once again see new life, and men and women, boys and girls, coming to a living faith in Jesus as His Saviour.
In the meanwhile it seems to me that even though the physical and mental toll of this crisis is great, we need to stay faithful, to keep praying and reading our Bibles, and to meet for worship wherever we can. I know this isn’t always easy, which is why more than ever we need to be the body of Christ, caring for one another, encouraging one another, and bearing one another’s burdens.
This is why, finally, I want to thank all those who provided such love and support to myself, to Lynda, to Lizzy and Mary over the past year, and especially in the past few weeks. Without this love and support neither I nor Lynda would not have been able to continue the ministry the Lord has given us here. May the Lord bless and keep you all, and I look forward one day to seeing you all again “on the other side”.
Revd Tim Buckley
26 Apr 20