I’m not sure which has felt more strange: going into lockdown or coming out of it.
A lot of things have apparently returned to ‘normal’ but it doesn’t take long to realise that they’re not very ‘normal’ at all and neither will they be for some time to come, if ever. A case in point is places of worship. I was initially excited to hear that Canterbury Cathedral had reopened to visitors, albeit at the slightly odd hours of 4.30pm – 8pm; and I decided to attend Evensong in the first week that it was up and running again. On the way there I decided to call into St Thomas’, my local church, and was pleased to bump into Fr Anthony. We had a long chat and were both agreed that these were “interesting times”! I popped inside for a little pray and was a little bit disconcerted by the ticker tape preventing access to every other pew; also by the fact that as soon as I left, somebody came to disinfect where I’d been sitting. It’s completely understandable, and necessary, but it just felt a bit peculiar and, for me at any rate, not terribly conducive to a prayerful atmosphere.
After an exiting handwash at the church I walked the short distance to the Cathedral (passing on the way a couple wearing what looked like gas masks!) and once inside that great edifice my hands were disinfected once more, and I had my name and number taken (in case I needed to be tracked and traced) and there was another lot of barriers and one-way systems to negotiate. Evensong is being held now in the vast nave, and I was one of six members of the congregation, together with the four celebrants and the verger (that’s the person who leads the celebrants to their positions whilst holding a big rod, or ‘virge’; and she looked very unsure of where she was supposed to be leading them: these ‘new normals’ take some getting used to for all of us!). We were all miles from one another, let alone 2 metres, and needless to say there were none of the usual choir boys with their angelic voices (singing won’t be allowed again in services for a long time). I’m truly grateful that these places of worship have opened their doors again and for all the planning and hard work that has made it possible, but there’s something very peculiar about the whole thing at the moment! Religion, for me, is about bringing people together, not keeping them far apart!
A couple of days later, I was having a (socially-distanced!) drink with a friend (a dyed in the wool Catholic like me) who told me how in recent months she had particularly felt the presence of God on her daily walks through the woods, and that she was in no hurry to return to mass in the physical building. Like many, she has been attending, and enjoying, mass regularly on-line.
As I mentioned to Fr Anthony, it will be interesting to see how many people will ever go back to attending a service in the physical church building now that they’re so used to watching from the comfort of their own home. St Thomas’ has had a decent webcam installed and the plan is to continue the live-streaming of masses in the longer-term and I think that is sensible. The Irish Chaplaincy’s ‘Keeping connected’ campaign has shown the huge potential of supplying elderly people with electronic devices, and making them relatively straightforward to use. We have been providing some of those elderly Irish we support with pre-programmed Tablets with which they can access mass or a favourite radio station, besides having face to face conversations, and with people anywhere in the world! The Galwayman who I speak to every week has just received his Tablet and was delighted with it, and proudly told me how he’d listened to Galway Bay FM, had looked at ‘The Tuam Herald’ on-line and had spoken, via Duo, with his friend Pat, one of our volunteers. He had said to Martina, who had delivered the Tablet and helped him get started on it, “this has been a great day”.
Pandemics through the ages have often led to significant, and positive, social change. The cholera epidemic in London in the 19th Century led to government investment in clean drinking water and propter sanitation. The Spanish flu in 1918/19 highlighted (as has Covid-19) the inequality between social classes and led to a better understanding (in some countries at least) of the importance of universal healthcare and low-income housing.
It remains to be seen what kind of long-term social change will result from the coronavirus, but significant change there will be and let’s hope that much of that change will be positive. If one of the consequences is that some people at least are enabled to be more connected (with each other, with their faith and their culture, and with the world around them), albeit ‘virtually’, then surely that has to be a good thing.
And one final thought: it seems that arrows will be part of our lives now for some time to come (whether telling us how to go into and out of a restaurant or just which way to walk down a shopping street), and I’ve been quite tickled to see that the arrows are often yellow. The Camino in Spain shows pilgrims the way to Santiago by lots of clearly and carefully placed…yellow arrows! Maybe it’s a good omen…