"Kingdom Stories": Rituals and Stories under Lockdown
During lockdown I came across Rituals for Work (Wiley 2019) by Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan in which they argue that ritual is a tool that can be used to improve the working of teams and organizations. Their four principles of ritual are: 1) They have a magical ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ factor; 2) They’re done with intentionality, with the person tuned into this being a special moment; 3) They carry a symbolic value that gives a sense of purpose and that’s beyond the practical; 4) They evolve over time to better suit the people and the situation (pp 11-14).
It seems to me that there is something of the sacramental about these principles. Compare Rowan Williams’ description of ‘sacramental action’ in On Christian Theology (Blackwell 2000), which traces a transition from one sort of reality to another: ‘first it describes a pre-sacramental state, a secular or profane condition now imagined for ritual purposes, in the light of and in terms of transformation that is to be enacted; it tells us that where we habitually are is not after all, a neutral place but a place of loss or need. It then requires us to set aside this damaged or needy condition, this flawed identity, so that in dispossessing ourselves of it we are able to become possessed of a different identity, given in the rite, not constructed by negotiation and co-operation like other forms of social identity’ (p 209).
In both Ozenc and Hagan’s understanding of ritual and William’s description of sacramental action social transformation is crucial. Work rituals transform individuals and groups in their organizational contexts, whilst the sacramental rituals of the Church transform disciples and the Body of Christ in mission and ministry.
But what happens (as with the advent of COVID-19) when not only are theatres of transformation closed down, but also the rituals themselves are transformed or reconfigured? Julie Gittoes has put it this way, writing about the sacrament of Holy Communion: ‘The eucharist has been at the heart of my spiritual life for as long as I can remember — since I was a child listening out for the snap of bread being broken. It is the lens through which I see everything; it is the pulse and plumb line of life; it is a point of encounter with Christ, feeding and forming us in the midst of joy and grief, the mundane and the complex’ (Church Times 17th April 2020). One of the great demands of lockdown is that many rituals and sacraments are taken from us, and now ones have to be discovered.
Another key element in all three strands I’m considering here is that of story. Stories and scripts are a fundamental part of Ozenc and Hagan’s work, not least as their theoretical and practical ideas are threaded through with the narratives of those they have worked with in developing workplace rituals. For Williams much of the Church’s sacramental action: ‘recapitulates aspects of a single story, the paschal narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection’ (pp 209-10). And Gittoes observes that: ‘communion with God is intimate: the physicality of touch, taste, and sight. It is also cosmic, enfolding us into the story of creation and redemption, restoring our vision of God’s Kingdom.’
The challenges wrought by COVID-19 cannot be underestimated. To begin with they are about people’s health and psychological wellbeing. Then there are the huge economic tests and the disruption to people’s jobs, families and unresolved emotional traumas. Against such a background the issues of dislocated rituals and disrupted sacraments may seem negligible. And yet the stories we tell to provide meaning and the rituals we enact to shape our lives are also critical to human welfare.
What happens to our stories in lockdown? Clearly they continue in some form but where are they told? Let me suggest three provisional answers – two are practical and a third is theological: 1) Many stories go online; 2) Some are still being written and told in life and death; and 3) All are part of God’s kingdom narrative.
1) Individual, communal and organizational stories are available in profusion through social media and there has been some helpful and topical comment about how this is affecting the online presence and of Christian churches from those who have been analysing this process for some time.
2) However, the effect on people’s personal stories will take some time to research. Funerals continue to take place in crematoriums and gravesides but not in churches, and nearly always with fewer mourners than usual. There are numerous unresolved issues, such as how will those who have been bereaved work through this grief? Will there be a desire for thanksgiving services once lockdown is finished? Whatever the answers to these and many other questions, it will still be the case that lives have been lived and people’s stories written but will they remain untold?
3) In Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning (SCM 2020) I argue that a vital aspect of the Church’s ministry is to be pointing to those stories of God’s kingdom that are around us at the moment. There are many stories of sacrificial action during the lockdown which are signs of Divine action and God’s kingdom.
However, as the Tragedies and Christian Congregations Project has observed: ‘We make sense of things by being able to integrate the experience into an overarching story. But it is much too soon to assemble a coherent narrative out of all this. Even the process of meaningfully gathering together to lament what has been lost is very hard. The trauma is unfolding and there are many losses yet unrevealed.’ Many of our personal and communal rituals have been transformed by COVID-19 but our stories continue to be told and those that are not heard, or have not yet been heard, nevertheless remain as part of the narrative of God’s kingdom.
Vaughan S. Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick and Chair of the MODEM Hub for Leadership, Management & Ministry. He is author of Kingdom Stories: Telling, Leading, Discerning (SCM 2020) and co-author with David Sims of Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership (SCM 2017).
 See Matthew Robert Anderson and Tim Hutchins https://theconversation.com/christians-face-an-online-easter-preparing-to-share-the-gospel-without-sharing-the-virus-135346 (accessed April 6, 2020); Heidi A. Campbell https://theconversation.com/how-to-build-community-while-worshipping-online-134977 (accessed April 16, 2020) and Pete Phillips ‘The Church (has gone) Online!’ at https://mcusercontent.com/d12dcf1ac0951a3d0a9c1829f/files/4de62329-3548-48d6-b456-d09fd5f04ae2/The_Church_Online.pdf (accessed April 20, 2020) All of whom have contributed to The Distanced Church: Reflections on doing Church Online (2020) ed Heidi A. Campbell and available here:
 ‘Guidance for ministers as the coronavirus crisis deepens’ by Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison https://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/2020/03/24/guidance-for-ministers-as-the-coronavirus-crisis-deepens/ (accessed April 21, 2020)