#TheologyinIsolation 7: "Prophets and Priests in a Pandemic"
Continuing our #TheologyinIsolation series, The Revd. Danny Pegg considers our challenge to be both prophets and priests.
I am writing this just as we have been placed into lockdown. The Archbishops have told us to leave the churches locked and broadcast from home if possible. We are waiting it out together, to defeat the 'invisible enemy' the politicians keep talking about.
Amidst all that, in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, clergy (myself included, ordained all of 18 months) are scrabbling to do the best they can in these strange times. Anyone who has been on any Christian forum of any kind will know full well that debate is ever a second away. In this coronavirus pandemic, there appears to be two main areas of discussion (above and beyond good practice, idea sharing and encouragement). They are how to celebrate the sacraments in a strange land and the potential transformation the Church will undergo during these weeks and months in pandemic.
There is much understandable anxiety about locking church buildings and whether any access is permitted for the clergy at all to celebrate the Eucharist or even just to pray. There is much want to take the sacrament to the housebound even though that is not possible. There is chagrin at the government advice referring to baptisms as merely celebratory gatherings and fear at what it all might mean for funerals.
On the other hand, many are excited about the 'newness' this time offers. Many are meeting real need in increasing creative (and technologically adept!) ways. There are grand sound-bite proclamations of permanent and unknown transformation for the Body of Christ in our land. There are equally a few trumpet blasts of the end of parishes as we know them, given financial implications and perhaps a shift in people's feelings toward churches and worship after this time is done.
So, we have the priest in the temple and the prophet in the wilderness.
Throughout the Old Testament, we have times of exile and wandering and change in the wilderness along with times of settled status, better living and temple worship. As Ben Quash reminds us in Abiding (2012), God's 'dwelling', his shechinah both 'moves before the people of Israel in the Exodus...in the moving tabernacle in the desert' and 'eventually in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It stays put when the people need to stay put, and it moves when they need to move.' (p.155)
In my parish, we have developed our own order of Morning and Evening Prayer during this time that we could strip down and share easily with the congregation to ensure we are praying at the same time and reading from the same hymn sheet. This morning, we read the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is sent into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted and he begins his ministry, stands up and reads from Isaiah in the temple, seeks a quiet place apart, exorcises a demon and heals some folk.
Here again we have the testing and triumph in the wilderness and the ministry in the cities, the synagogues and the temple. It seems to me that in this time of pandemic that there is encouragement to draw from both of these as we move when we need to move and stay put when we need to stay put.
Whether it is at the kitchen table or at the altar, God's worship will continue. Many have observed how helpful routine has been in the wildernesses of our isolation: a routine of prayer will become something to lean on even to those with the strongest allergies to the daily offices or similar. It can carry us, connect us to God's dwelling with us and his actions in the times gone before us when his people have too faced exile, plague and distress. In addition to this, we do have to adapt and try the new. We have to trust that we will be able to fulfil our callings (lay or ordained) in this wilderness time and yes, it may mean uncomfortable temporary change or permanent transformation. We cannot know about the after yet, like the Israelites following the pillar of fire amidst confusion, awe and grumbling.
We are called to be prophets and to be priests. There is space for what we have had and are used to and space for what we have never needed until now. Jane Williams tells us in The Merciful Humility of God (2009) that Lent starts for us where Jesus' ministry started for him: at the acceptance of God's proclamation that we are beloved by him, defined by him. (p.20) If we can turn to God as Christ did - quoting scripture during the temptations in the wilderness and in his acceptance of his call in the synagogue reading from Isaiah - then we can know when to be prophet or priest, when to stay put and when to move, when to continue our duty in the temple and when to dwell in the wilderness and listen.
The Revd. Danny Pegg is a curate at St Luke's, Stone Cross..