Next week we shall return to church, but before we do, here we are gathered in this virtual way, safely distanced, but together. We are worshipping as perhaps three months ago we might never have imagined. And we are poised on the threshold of our beloved St Mark’s.
We are still the same people. Perhaps our hair is longer, or greyer; perhaps we have acquired new skills, or put on a few pounds, or taken off a few. We have all lived through an episode of our lives which may have felt was suspended somehow– a waking dream; or for some a nightmare.
Quite apart from an economy also suspended (with all that might imply for the future), society has been tested in unique ways. Health services remarkably took up the challenge of caring for our nation and its most vulnerable in ways which rightly deserved the many Thursdays of applause. That weekly moment became a ritual, a liturgy of its own, a secular-eucharist, which bound so many together. We may have discovered neighbours we never knew or were able to realise who lived where exactly in the houses and flats around, and the sense of connectedness, as a time of isolation was incredibly powerfully unlocked for a few moments.
The world-wide movement protesting at the death of George Floyd, was very understandably bound up with the shocking reality that in developed countries the most adversely affected in society have been Black, Asian and Minority ethnic communities and with them the poorest, and least-well housed; everyone who died or who has been affected is an undeserving victim of this disease.
In the last week on the radio there have been a range of essays, short and long on a BBC podcast called Rethink. If you get a chance to listen to any of them, I do commend them. They are all fascinating. They help us to recognize that what we yearn for in our hearts for a better society we need to work for in our lives, through our words and even better our actions. This is a very important challenge, which speaks directly to today’s readings.
The daily historical programme The Long View, has explored historical health crises in the last week. And this made me look at the Church’s reaction to plague and pestilence in its history. Certainly, the prayers we have and use show those who wrote them had first-hand experience of them.
Rodney Stark, a historian and sociologist in the 90s did some fascinating research on the early history of the Church in relation to pandemics of the first centuries of our era. There were two waves of what may have been Smallpox in 165 AD and 251 AD. From a pastoral letter written by Bishop Dionysus of Alexandria, after the second of these, it is apparent that medicine and society were of no avail.
At all events most of the brethren through their love and brotherly affection for us spared not themselves nor abandoned one another, but without regard to their own peril visited those who fell sick, diligently looking after and ministering to them and cheerfully shared their fate with them, being infected with the disease from them… the very pick of our brethren lost their lives in this way, both priests and deacons and some highly praised ones from among the laity, so that this manner of dying does not seem far removed from martyrdom… But the Gentiles behaved quite differently: those who were beginning to fall sick they thrust away, and their dearest they fled from, or cast them half dead into the roads: unburied bodies they treated as vile refuse; for they tried to avoid the spreading and communication of the fatal disease.
Doctors fled from the contagion as far as they could. It was the Christians, at that time sporadically persecuted, who not only took care of their own, but of those abandoned by their families to die in the streets. In the Fourth Century, the Pagan Emperor Julian tried to roll back Constantine’s establishment of the Church. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” The Church’s acts of mercy commended it to a frightened and beleaguered populace, and this is one of the reasons Paganism crumbled thereafter.
Professor Stark says the early Church grew because the values of love, dedication to social service and community solidarity, before, during and after pandemics was so strong that nothing could break them. Our assemblies which we seek to restore are essential to our worshipping life, but as intensive communities they are essential to our missionary life.
Scroll forward 1000 years, there is a baudier but no less cheering account. Estimates vary but the Black Death of the 1340s may have killed half the population of Europe in a very short space of time. The mother and father of all pandemics, the economic and social order would never be the same. The Church unfortunately did not display the same levels of self-sacrifice as it had when underground. An uproarious record of the effects of the time is Boccacio’s Decameron. A set of narrated stories within the story of a group of refugees from plague-infested Florence, the Decameron inspired Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are three things perhaps to note, which have real resonances for us as we emerge from lockdown. Humour, even and perhaps particularly the baudy and disrespectful, helps to turn human frailty, especially fear, into something manageable. It’s a vital tool in survival. We certainly saw that at the start of the confinement – so many silly emails, but they raised a smile. I still love the quote of a 15 year old “it’s comforting to know that we are living through a History GCSE question”. Second the Decameron marks in the literature of the very early renaissance, the changes in the world order. Rulers and ruled across Europe entered a different relationship, with a series of uprisings which followed in the decades after return. The narratives more than hint at how things have to change, and how inevitably old hierarchies will be questioned in the light of such upheaval. And thirdly, related to the first point, it is not just that humour tames the horrendous, but entertainment – story-telling is a natural need and place to turn to. This book was the original Netflix box-set for lockdown. One of my prayers for the next stage of our life is for all associated with sport, theatre and music venues, as they are so essential for the renewed mental health and resilience of society.
These moments in history, and there are more, all underline that the Church has not been absent or unaffected by pandemic-type calamities. Sometimes it has thrived against all odds and been a beacon of the light of God’s grace during and after human suffering, sometimes the Church’s tendency to self-preservation has rendered it a derisory caricature of itself, as it did in plague-struck Florence.
Today’s readings remind us of the character of prophecy. Jeremiah, that brave lone voice at a moment of disaster, speaks of the role of the prophet to tell of evil or plague, war or peace. And Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and be courageous in proclaiming the Gospel and to accept the varying welcomes they might receive; but those who welcome them as prophets will receive “the prophet’s reward”.
This moment of change, this turning point in all our lives, is the time to attend to prophetic words, to challenge to society to unearth and root out injustice and restore hope. To call for what some call “the circular bio-economy”.
Our return to our church building is not just convenient, it is the opportunity to be what we are called to be – the Church. The very word Church means “assembly” those who are called out – to be together. On 20 September we shall mark the 80th anniversary of the destruction of St Mark’s. An anniversary we were planning to keep with special celebrations and the start of fund-raising for renewal of the building, essential maintenance and possibly other works to help us the better to be at the service of all in our neighbourhood. Can we, as our forebears did, show that we are changed, and thereby change for the better this parish, this community and all with whom we have to do.
GOD, whose beauty is beyond our imagining and whose power we cannot comprehend: show us thy glory as far as we can grasp it, and shield us from knowing more than we can bear until we may look upon thee without fear; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.