Towards a new normal
Rev Philip Brooks is the United Reformed Church’s Secretary for Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations.
My last memory of ‘normal’ life as a National Ecumenical Officer was Tuesday 17 March, when I returned to London from the Methodist Anglican Panel for Unity in Mission residential, held at the Catholic Conference and Retreat Centre, Hinsley Hall in Leeds. Even then the experience was far from ‘normal’. The high-speed train was virtually empty. I arrived at Kings Cross Station at the evening rush hour, but rather than the usual crush of commuters, the concourse was all but deserted. From now on, the world would look very different and we would learn to encounter church in a completely new way.
This has brought many challenges along the way. Closing our churches has not only stopped the physical gathering for communal worship, it has shut down the vital community outreach facilitated by our buildings. Thankfully, the much-needed foodbanks have been allowed to operate and the mushrooming demand for their services has been met with unstinting generosity. Weddings and baptisms have had to be cancelled. Funerals have continued and tragically grown in number, but with heart-rending restrictions around who (in some parts of the country no-one at all) is permitted to attend.
Much of the period of lockdown coincided with the lead up to Easter. We were able to empathise with the disciples who remained locked down in Jerusalem until they were released by the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. It has been a time to recognise that, at the heart of our faith, is a God who meets us in the depths of despair and always works through us to bring light and hope.
So, we found ways to provide pastoral care to those in isolation, through phone calls and food parcels left on doorsteps, with supportive messages of love and care. We discovered ‘Zoom Church’. Younger generations gave tutorials to parents and grandparents to overcome the technology and worship together once again via the internet. We may have been locked out of our buildings but the Church, as the body of Christ, was still open.
Video conferencing brought people together geographically and ecumenically like never before. One of my personal highlights in lockdown was to lead a joint service of virtual communion for Pentecost with the URC’s partner church, the Evangelische Kirche der Pfalz, in the Palatinate region of Germany. As the online congregation of over 200 people from the two churches shared the Lord’s Prayer in our different languages and at the inevitable different speeds of speaking together by Zoom, it was a definite Pentecost experience.
And so we begin to look ahead and consider how the lessons of enforced confinement will bring us fresh ways of being church. The URC’s moderators have brought out a document entitled Ready for the new normal, which has become something of an ecumenical standard. Rather than definitive answers, it offers appropriate questions to ask: After lockdown, what MUST resume, what SHOULDN’T and what might we do differently? It encourages churches to devise a plan to take them from lockdown into a healthy future. The URC has also just published a follow-up guide for churches looking at neighbourhood engagement post-pandemic. It is called New reality, same Mission: A stimulus to renewed community engagement as we emerge from the pandemic.
My prayer is that this ‘new normal’ will retain the ecumenical spirit we have re-discovered during Pentecost 2020, so that we may live out the call of Jesus’ message in John 17:23, ‘that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me’. Rarely has the world needed that unity more than now.
Prior to moving to work at URC Church House in London, Rev Philip was minister to two Methodist/URC LEP’s in Bolton and Salford. He also served as ecumenical chaplain to Bolton Town Centre.