In all honesty I cannot pretend that the lockdown has been onerous for my wife and me. Just before it was imposed, I was approaching the age at which Alex Carlile QC had wittily observed that he “could no longer be said to have died before his time”, and my wife had multiple contra indicators for her health; the virus plainly presented an enhanced risk, and so we made an easy responsible choice. We decided to come to a house we had bought 32 years ago in La France Profonde, and the costs of restoring a ruin have been repaid as we enjoy a full and extended spring succession of planting in our garden for the very first time.
Our region has the second lowest infection rate in the country, there are often only 20 cars in the supermarket car park, and you can obtain a GP appointment within 2 hours. It is all very agreeable and safe. I count my blessings.
I have been able to use the time productively in both religious and secular pursuits, and am intrigued by a certain correlation between my two current interests. The internet has enabled me to sample the wonderful variety of creative responses to the challenges of socially-distanced worship across our Church, which would never have occurred had things been ‘normal’. The local Anglican parish in France is currently in vacancy and is the size of Wales. Accordingly, the Digital Church is a Godsend.
Similarly, for my birthday, my wife bought me an online music course with a wonderful Israeli guitar teacher Yaacov Hotar, and through his online presence I have been busily exploring the technique of the greatest European jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, whose story presents fascinating parallels to how our Church might renew itself out of these difficult times. First, a little history.
Django was a fine young musician in the Gypsy guitar tradition when a catastrophic fire in his caravan brought him close to death. His family withdrew him from hospital to prevent his leg being amputated, but, worse still, the tendons in his left hand had been permanently burnt and withered so that on his left hand, which frets the notes, he only had index and middle fingers working properly. With considerable ingenuity, patience and resilience, he set about reinventing his technique, and so created an entirely new genre of music.
He could only ever just about write his name, and never read or studied music in a formal sense, but with only two fingers fully functioning he began seeking what was possible. Soon he was introducing novel techniques and improvising into modes and alternative voicing. He ‘accidentally’ began exploring ideas such as the the harmonic minor key, simply because the defining and interesting notes of that key lay on adjacent frets and could be played with his former speed. He began using the sounds and combining them in new and extended ways. He didn’t know it, but he was exploring complex possibilities of musical theory. It was his very disability that led him to creating the new form of music.
It also saved his life when a thwarted escape attempt to Switzerland during the Second World War had him returned across the border into the hands of a German officer who had seen him play in Paris and was a huge fan. He sent his gypsy prisoner on his way with his best wishes.
In recent times, many In the the Church feel they have been fearfully disabled. They can’t do what they previously did, and it is very hard for them. But our best people for these times have responded with a Django-like determination, creativity and ingenuity. The ‘music’ of the gospel is still being shared and explored. We are solving problems we did not know we had, and we are being necessarily innovative – “Quelle horreur!” as Django and others might say.
During the physical and emotional isolation of lockdown, I have enjoyed an extended experience of what it is to be Anglican in a wide variety of ways. Our former curate and friend, the Rev’d Karen Nelson, quickly stepped up to the challenge like others and brought us the warmth of friendly familiarity on Easter Day via a simple service from her home. That was only the start. I soon began extending my faith-and-worship repertoire, joining the Rev’d Dr Ian Paul as he offered an online Bible-based study of texts. His is a different tradition from mine, but he has enriched my faith journey through lockdown. Then there have been the beautiful presentations of the Psalms sung in traditional four-part harmony by Ben Vonberg-Clark, followed another General Synod friend, Canon Rachel Mann, offering an utterly and joyously bonkers version of ‘This Little light of Mine‘.
The Church should shine during lockdown – and it has. Her colleague Ollie Mills later offered lay leadership with a beautiful calming Taizé Service.
Then I encountered ‘The UK Blessing‘, which was a wonderful expression of Christian love and unity as mainly young and beautifully diverse people from all across the country were brought together via this wonderful digital technology. A blessing was prayed across the country by inter alia HTB Anglicans, Salvationists, Charismatic Catholics, Orthodox folk, House Church people, a Gospel choir, chamber musicians and a rap singer. It wasn’t simply what they were singing or how they were singing, but that they were singing at which was so uplifting. They were joining in unity as one Christian people praying God’s blessing across the whole country. Its unity in diversity has brought tears to the eyes of some with whom I’ve shared it.
There is something very jazzy about all this; a theme being reworked, reinterpreted, re-harminised, stretched, re-energised and refreshed, while never losing its identifiable cohesive individual character.
As we contemplate what all this means and what lessons should be drawn from the various innovative projects, two things seem to me to be essential. First, that when we do return to our churches, we do not abandon what we have been learning whilst ‘in exile’ from our buildings; and second, that we give greater prominence in our discussions and deliberations to those who have been exploring this territory for years. I refer to the Disabled Church.
They are the ‘digital natives’ in this online world who have colonised and understood this environment better than most. Many of them cannot frequent buildings even if they wanted to, and they have been joined of late by those who have been let down by safeguarding and other failures, for whom our buildings are not remembered fondly. For these people, ‘normal church’ is an environment of rejection and not a place of safety. For them, the online world is the Church of acceptance and sanctuary.
It is not only about physical distancing: the ‘Disability and Jesus’ project has been an online praying presence for years; they are a familiar presence at the York Synod of the Church of England, and they have been steadily making service material available for those who cannot read. Such pictogram worship can be enhancing to all. At General Synod I often choose to sit close to our deaf signers to be taken into a new worship experience in refreshing ways. These pioneers must have an honoured place in our ongoing discussions, and their alternative materials ought to be made routinely available in every church building.
The General Synod has necessarily cancelled its physical meeting in July, but very sensibly our Church leaders have been canvassing opinion about convening a virtual Synod to attend to necessary business. I hope that the first sessions will be suitably taken up by a presentation of the various ways in which we have taken steps to becoming a full time online Church, and an evaluation of how this can be purposefully and urgently developed. That is surely primary necessary business.
Our Church is multi-dimensional, and that includes needing to be fully present online while grappling with the problems of the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis. In such circumstances, doing better, cheaper, is not simply an option but a pressing priority. Happily it is a well-trodden path both inside and outside the Church, and we need urgently to engage with those who know how to do this. We may want to go back into our buildings, but we equally need to take the good news further afield, effectively embracing the many wonderful opportunities we are learning, and are but a few clicks away.
Attending a church building may be a preferred option for many, even if there are residual risks. It must not, however, be seen as better, more faithful, or more virtuous. I know some will find this disconcerting, but innovation is disturbing. Archbishop Justin has already observed that Christ is ahead of us here, and I offer the thought that there was perhaps the odd disciple thinking to himself, ‘This Holy Spirit is all very well, but it’s not the same as having Jesus in the room.’
We learned that it was, and developed a theology to explain it, just as Django got to grips with his altered reality and came to discover potential that he had never fully understood before. The possibilities were there; he just had not been challenged enough to explore them. ‘Both/And’ has become a commonplace theological idea. Jesus is, after all, both fully human and fully divine. We ought not to struggle with the thought of embracing the non-corporeal online presence when we routinely invoke the Communion of Saints. If we can discern their presence with us around the altar, I am sure we can reach out to include the bloke sitting four doors away with his guide dog, waiting for us to reach out to him in a safe and accessible way.