06 November 2020
A message from the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler to the Methodist people following a further lockdown in England and continued restrictions in Wales and Scotland.
I don’t want to exaggerate our current situation by suggesting any similarity between our position and his, but I have turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison as I think about the ‘lockdown’ that began at midnight today. Even ‘lockdown’ can seem to be an exaggeration as for many life will not be so very different. Unlike in the Spring, schools and other educational establishments are still open; there is no restriction on the number of times per day that someone can leave their home; churches can be open for individual prayer, funerals, and the live streaming of acts of worship (as always, up-to-date guidance for ministers and managing trustees is available on the Methodist Church website). Our liberty has been restricted for the sake of others; it is going too far (I think) to claim that our liberties have been infringed.
None of that makes lockdown easy; there is a number of reasons why this feels so hard. One is the divergence with which we have to live in the Connexion. As activities in England become more confined, there is soon to be an easing of the restrictions in Wales. Scotland (at the time of writing) continues to operate a policy of regional tiers. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have had a very different experience in some respects and may feel more isolated than before from the rest of the British Isles. Remembering that we are one Connexion has never seemed so important.
Another reason that this feels hard is the time of year. Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents on 9 November 1943, ‘Now the dismal autumn days have begun and one has to try to get light from within.’ I was talking to a friend last week about some practical arrangements which involved meeting outdoors and said that I supposed it was harder than in the Spring because November seems grimmer than April. ‘That’s because,’ he replied, ‘November is grimmer than April.’ This might be one year when we do not complain about preparations for Christmas beginning too early; the Christian message is that it is when the darkness is deepest the light of Christ shines most brightly.
Bonhoeffer continued that letter in November 1943, ‘Your letters always help with this.’ The discovery of pandemic for me and many others has been the range of communication technology available to us and the simple importance of keeping in touch. One of the principal tasks of ministry (for the whole community not just the ordained) is to maintain the links; that many church buildings had not reopened for worship before governments ordered their closure again was testament to the imaginative ways of sustaining fellowship that had been adopted. Of course, meeting online is not the same as gathering around a table but neither is it simply ‘better than nothing’ and we shall continue to reflect and to explore what it means to be a church that is drawn together in physical and non-physical ways.
A third reason that this is hard, however, is the (temporary) loss of a church service in those buildings where public worship had resumed. Bonhoeffer wrote in April 1943 of the ringing of the prison chapel bell being the best time to write home. ‘It’s remarkable what power church bells have over human beings and how deeply they can affect us. So many of life’s experiences gather around them.’ Meeting in a church building has a similar resonance. It is not simply about being in a particular place for a particular purpose on a particular day but about somewhere that has resonance with an host of memories, both communal and individual. ‘I think,’ Bonhoeffer went on, ‘of all the different parishes I have worked in, then of all the family occasions…. I really cannot count all the memories that come alive to me, and they all inspire peace, thankfulness, and confidence.’ At a time when we are anxious about when the restrictions will be lifted, reminding ourselves not of what we are missing but of what has blessed us in the past can be a gateway to peace, thankfulness, and confidence, and not only for us but for one another as, confined to our homes though we we might be, we make sure that we keep in touch. ‘I don’t expect a long letter from you’ wrote Bonhoeffer to one of his friends, ‘but let’s promise to remain faithful in interceding for each other.’
Jonathan Hustler, 5 November 2020.