Father Jeff sends you his concluding ‘Pastoral Letter in a Pandemic’
First, thank you for continuing to read these letters. It has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to speak to you in this special way: sometimes to tell you stories; occasionally to commemorate the lives of those that have been lost to us; other times to write to you of something which has moved me, stimulated me, interested me, inspired me in the hope that it would also move, stimulate, interest and inspire you.
Since my first letter to you on 23rd March 2020, which turned out to be the day we were told that we were going into something called "lockdown", a new community has come into being between you and me through these letters, as we linked lives and sought the presence and protection of God, as we faced a common threat together. Thank you for your companionship during those challenging times, thank you for your openness to our relating to one another in this new way, thank you for your responses to my invitation to contribute to our Anthems of Gratitude. I am the richer and know that my faith and ministry have deepened through this shared experience.
Over the last two years I have mainly addressed these letters to you, sometimes I have written to those no longer with us like Captain Sir Tom Moore and I have even written to the new President of the United States of America, though I am afraid I never got a reply to my letter. What I have not done is written a letter to God. So this I must do now as I sign off from this sequence of "Letters in a Pandemic." Although I may not have shared with you any communication I have had with Him, I have of course been communicating and communing with Him throughout, as I am sure you have too.
So there it is, well over 100 letters later.... I hope we will continue to support each other through whatever comes our way, celebrating times of joy, consoling each other in times of difficulty, laughing with one another over a few glasses of Rioja and continuing our adventure ever deeper into the life of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Blessings galore to every single one of you.
As mentioned above, I thought the last Pastoral Letter should probably begin:
I am sitting in church reflecting on the last two years as I write this, the last in this sequence of Pastoral Letters. I am aware that I have written well over a hundred of them since March 2020 when the fear of the unknown crept across our skin like a cold hand. I vividly recall feeling the desire to reach out to all who are part of my life as a priest, almost so that we could hold hands in the darkness, to quench each other’s fear, to reassure one another, to gain some sort of strength and connection with others and to inspire hope in one another.
I had taken for granted the opportunity to see others on Sundays, to enjoy their company, feel encouraged by the chance to pray together and sing together, empowered by the experience of enjoying Communion with each other. Suddenly, being deprived of joining together as a congregation, I knew that some sense of community was crucial, to me anyway, as a way of getting through and making sense out of what was happening to us all. So I turned to an instrument I had only really used for transactional rather than relational reasons before, my computer, and allowed it to be the place where I could connect with others through reaching out with words, then as a place of communion as we joined together for our Zoom Services.
It was an extraordinary time in our life together, to worship while in our homes, to sense at least 150 of us each Sunday setting aside time to be united with each other and to be attentive to You. Those sanctified sabbath moments offered us a strength and an uplift I never imagined it possible to feel through a computer screen. And that experience has made me more aware than ever of how the Holy Spirit can do something creative and unifying, uplifting and empowering completely unrestricted by the restrictions which were being imposed upon us. Time was blessed, our homes were blessed, our prayers were blessed, we were blessed as well as bread and wine being blessed at our Zoom services, as we knew spiritual communion with each other and with you. So many of us have had the sure sense of your reaching out to us, reassuring, listening and befriending us, who were opening our hearts and minds, our questions and anxieties, our fears and concerns to you, sometimes even more powerfully than we have experienced in decades of physically going to church. We learned that through the power of your Holy Spirit, we don’t have to be in church to be your Church, as long as we join together in your name as the community of the Spirit’s making. I pray that that enhanced sense of communion will sustain us for years to come, to refresh us in our relationship with you. You will know that it was here, for months, in an empty church, usually on a Sunday afternoon, often as the sun was shining in, accompanied by two slumbering dogs at my feet, that I would speak aloud the names of each friend and each person who was part of the life of St Mary’s, praying them into your protective presence and listening love. They may not have been physically present, but they were present as they were prayed for by name and offered to your care and compassion.
And here, I think for the first time in Christian history, thanks to the Bishop of Rome and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, priests were permitted to celebrate the Eucharist on their own. Before that it had to be "where two or three are gathered together" in your name, because the Eucharist by definition is a shared meal, not a self-indulgent feast. But here, with so many people in my mind and on my heart, I celebrated Communion and you will know what I said as I received the bread and wine, for others as well as for myself, "This I receive for me and for mine". And I confess to looking at you hanging on the Cross at the east end of our church and saying with fire in my belly and defiance in my voice, "I don’t want to lose any of them due to Covid, not one!" I had read in the semi confidential memo sent to those who conduct funerals such as myself, back in March 2020, that they were predicting a certain percentage of people from the congregation and community dying due to Covid. I am so relieved, I am so grateful, that those frightening figures were not realised, in this area anyway, and am so lastingly, deeply thankful for that.
The children have been marvellous: many joining Zoom Sunday School, some being prepared to receive Communion for the first time in afternoon sessions on Zoom. I have never been able to attend Sunday School in the churches I have been part of since Ordination as I am always in church. It was wonderful to hear their insights into the scriptures, concern about creation, conscience about the vulnerable and disadvantaged, enthusiasm for enjoyment, perception about other people. I loved being part of Sunday School, an unexpected joy in an otherwise challenging time. May each and every child who is part of the life of St Mary’s be nurtured with a positive sense of your love for them, belief in them and purpose for their lives.
I am so grateful to those who have ensured that the Pastoral Letters, Zoom services, church opening, parish finances, website updates, office business, all carried on regardless of restrictions relating to Covid. Thank you for all those you have drawn to the life of St Mary’s who contribute so much and enhance our life together so significantly. Thank you too for those who joined in the Zoom Services with such eagerness and appreciation, for all those who have joined in those services from other parishes in other parts of the country, whose churches were not able to offer the things we could. Please Lord, continue to bless them, make them more aware of your delight in them, pride in them and draw them ever closer to yourself.
And what now? Now that we are emerging, like Lazarus from his tomb, from lockdown, social isolation, separation from others, emerging into a changed and challenging economic and social landscape? None of us is unmarked by Covid, none of us is unchanged. Many of us have learned what and who really matter to us, many of us do not wish to go back to who we were and how we lived before, but rather, to be driven and inspired by more creative and altruistic ideals. We have learned more than ever of our need for others: their kindness and company, laughter and listening, presence and touch. I pray that we will never take things for granted again.
So please help us live in a more enlightened way: to make time for others, to listen carefully to others, to make more regular contact with others, to notice the beauty of your world and not just use it and walk through it. Provoke us to invest more generously in the work of charities and in positive projects which enhance people’s experience of living. May each and every one of us find some new way of making a constructive and compassionate difference to others. Prompt us to want to pledge ourselves to praying for others who may feel so weakened by their experiences over the past two years that they feel unable to pray for themselves. As we read the scriptures, hungry and eager to make connections between what we are experiencing now and what others before us experienced in their pilgrimage toward you, may we see ourselves as part of the ongoing family of God and Company of the Holy Spirit, held for all time and for eternity in the power of your presence, purpose and peace.
Thank you, Lord, for accompanying us through all that has been. Please be with us during all that awaits. I ask this for me and for mine, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
LENT AT ST MARY`S:
On Ash Wednesday, 2nd March, we will be reintroducing the Wednesday 10am Eucharist. On that special day, we will also be celebrating the Eucharist at 7.30pm, for those who cannot attend during the working day. We will also be holding 5 sessions at 7.30pm on Mondays in Lent, beginning on 7th March, when we invite you to come along and meet others in the St Mary’s family. We will be reflecting on what we have all, collectively and individually, been experiencing over the last 2 years and on how, if at all, our faith has helped us through. To stimulate discussion, we will be looking at how the first disciples experienced the presence of Christ in similarly difficult and unpromising situations. Do please make a note of this in your diaries and, as I have mentioned in the letter above, make a special effort to join us.
At our worship at St Mary`s on the Last Sunday before Lent, at to 9.30am Eucharist in church and at the 5pm Zoom service online, we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage, which this week is Luke 9, verses 28-36.
ALMIGHTY FATHER WHOSE SON WAS REVEALED IN MAJESTY BEFORE HE SUFFERED DEATH UPON THE CROSS, GIVE US GRACE TO PERCEIVE HIS GLORY THAT WE MAY BE STRENGTHENED TO SUFFER WITH HIM AND TO BE CHANGED INTO HIS LIKENESS FROM GLORY TO GLORY. THIS WE ASK THROUGH JESUS CHRIST YOUR SON, WHO LIVES AND REIGNS WITH YOU AND THE HOLY SPIRIT, ONE GOD, NOW AND FOR EVER, AMEN.