As the editor of Anglican Life, the newspaper serving the Anglican dioceses in Newfoundland and Labrador, I often look at last year’s papers as reminders of what was going on then. This year, I don’t need to look back at April 2020’s paper to remember. A year ago, the front cover was about the first combined mission service that my parish took part in with three other parishes here in St. John’s. The building was full of people, and joy, and hope for the future. That service was held on Feb. 23.
And then the world changed. As humans, we’re pretty good at adapting to changes, but this has been a very tough year with difficult changes on offer.
As I write this in late February, we are back in lockdown. Earlier that month it became clear that COVID-19 had circulated within our community—the dreaded B117 variant—for some time. It ripped through a metro-area high school. With sports games and other interactions, it spread like wildfire. Bishops across the province moved quickly to shut down all in-person worship and to close the buildings to the public, and we pivoted back to online worship.
Entering a second lockdown has made me really think about the future of the church; my husband’s a priest, and I’m the editor of an Anglican newspaper. We have all our eggs in this single basket. And to draw on an Atlantic Canadian metaphor: from the bow of our little boat, we look upon the rough waters, and we wonder. What comes next?
I honestly do not think that we will return to the way that things were before the pandemic—not entirely. Some of that is good, and some of it is less than ideal. We have seen an improvement in our ability to reach people with the help of technology. Live-streaming services isn’t really optional any more. It is a wonderful tool for reaching those unable to attend worship, or even to augment a person’s spiritual life throughout the week. Church may have left the building, and for many people, it has also expanded and left Sunday mornings.
But as the editor of the paper, I am seeing a sharp decline in the number of submissions that I receive for each issue. I worry that many people are slowly fading into the background of their church’s lives. Our church communities can fill the role of a chosen family for us. Many of us move far away from our families for work, or for other reasons, and in our church community we are often “adopted” by surrogate grandparents (or grandchildren). We watch children grow up, Sunday by Sunday. Many of my closest friendships are with people that I have met through church. I don’t believe that online worship is a replacement for coming together in person. “Seeing” people in the comments section of a Facebook live event is a poor replacement for a shared Shrove Tuesday meal of pancakes. And it’s worth noting here that Newfoundlanders are an especially tactile people—I was kissed and hugged by complete strangers almost the moment that I got off the plane here back in 1997. Now when we do see each other, masked and six feet apart, you can feel the longing to come closer.
As we draw closer in life, so do we seek community around death. And so another example of the “less than ideal” change can be found in how we grieve as a church family. Wakes and funerals have had to be more or less eliminated during the pandemic. As many of you will know, in October 2020 we had a great loss in my home diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador with the sudden death of our bishop, Geoffrey Peddle. This would have been shocking and distressing at any time, but the fact that we were unable to hold any kind of public memorial to support each other as members of the diocese made it especially difficult to bear. It was certainly a low point for many in the diocese, and there is no doubt that the lack of closure that many of us feel has cast a shadow over much of what we do, even now. In a year in which so many deaths have been eulogized solely as statistics, we’ve all faced the possibility of living indefinitely with open wounds and broken hearts.
Yet God heals the brokenhearted, and he binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). And perhaps we can see healing in our midst, if we look—healed ways of being.
The permanent changes in the church resulting from this time of pandemic will, I hope, mostly concern those things that were ready to go—in the context I know, this might be our over-abundance of buildings and the never-ending fundraising we do to maintain them. It is to be hoped that, when we are vaccinated and back to in-person worship for good, we will have a better appreciation for things like the celebration of and sharing in the Eucharist and the ability to attend in-person celebrations with our parish families and our gifted musicians. And maybe during this strange time, we have come to a new appreciation for our clergy and leadership teams, and their ability to constantly pivot and connect with their parishioners—things that they definitely did not learn in any of their training. This ministry is what we need to invest in—ministry by the many leaders on all levels who have walked with us through this strange time. This ministry has proved to be the truly essential thing. We have been given this chance to consider which parts of what we had assumed to be “normal” are worth returning to, and which are not. Those four parishes in St. John’s are still working together, and we will continue to move forward as and when we are able.
We have, here at home, become familiar with the phrase, “Hold fast, Newfoundland and Labrador.” This is how our chief medical officer ends most of the COVID-19 updates, and I’ll say the same for the church: Hold fast, Anglican Church of Canada. Be still and know that God is with us—and even the wind and the waves obey him (Mark 4). We’re not sinking, but just changing course a bit.