COVID-19 has challenged me to live my priestly life in a new way
Mathew Crane, a priest in the Western District of Victoria, was dismayed when he first learned that places of worship would have to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But, he says, church closure has meant a reassessment of ways of being church, and it has challenged him to live his priestly life in a new way.
By Mathew Crane
May 20 2020As I sat on the sofa a few weeks ago listening to the Prime Minister of Australia speak live on SBS, my heart sank and broke. Did the Prime Minister really just announce that “All places of worship were to close”? What would this mean for my already fragile communities of faith? What would this mean for the Easter Triduum, the days leading up to the great celebrations of Easter?
I should probably declare that I really was not all that surprised. Even a cursory glance at the world news would suggest that we were more than certainly heading down the same path as Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia with increased restrictions on movement, socialising, and enforced self-isolation. Truth be told, I was already head-long into a period of isolation, having developed symptoms of coronavirus, and due to recent overseas travels had to be tested at the back of my doctor’s clinic by a doctor in personal protective gear wielding a nose swab whilst I sat feeling completely ridiculous in my car. The test result, which came nearly a week later, was negative.
I had great plans for my time of isolation. I was going to write like a budding novelist, catch up on home-based tasks, and even offered The Powers That Be to prepare resources for our eventual shutdown. This offer was met with a very clear, “We will not be shutting down”. However, despite our longing to continue as usual, the doors of churches across the country have been locked, and all public worship suspended.
Is a priest without a church still a priest? How would I fill my weeks? Given that each day is punctuated by moments of prayer, celebrating the sacraments and pastoral encounters – sometimes planned, but mostly organic – what would physical distancing, isolation and the closure of church buildings mean not just for me, but for my parishioners, the local people and for communities of faith everywhere?
Closure has meant a reassessment of the tried and true methods of being church, and a more creative response being generated. Many have turned to social media and various forms of live-streaming to continue to engage with people near and far with encouraging results. The point-and-shoot efforts of many colleagues have been valiant as we have each sought to sustain connection with our communities. It seems that overnight, clergy and church leaders the world over have become minor celebrities through the medium of social media with varying degrees of success. I must count myself in that category, and so I offer this reflection based on my own meagre efforts in this virtual sphere.
I “went live” a few weeks ago via Facebook with the recitation of Morning Prayer from the Church of England’s Daily Prayer app for iPhone. I sat the computer on a prayer desk, took my seat in an armchair in my study, clicked “Go Live” and introduced my Facebook friends to my prayer life in one click of a button. I did not expect that 20 people would click-in that morning, joining me in their everyday lives, wherever they were in the world, as I prayed the Office. Friends in the United Kingdom, America, Canada and various parts of Australia have joined me as I limp through the Office day by day. People I’ve never met, and may never have cause to meet, have joined me in my study and in my prayers. They have entered my heart and my prayers, and yet remain complete strangers. I did not foresee or even permit myself to imagine that people would over and over again ask for these moments of prayer to continue.
For some, the chance to pause for 20 minutes during their morning spent in isolation has been their first connection to the institutional church in some years. For others, it is the first time they have come in contact with me-as-a-priest, or with the liturgy of the Office ever, period. And in that one click, they discovered a space into which they could enter without judgement, from the comfort of their own home, in a commitment-free way. For members of my own family, they have seen me “at work”, living my vocation in my daily life, and in the confines of isolation, just like them. For everyone, I think, it has been an opportunity to pray as they have been locked out of churches across the country.
People I have not had meaningful contact with for years have written, phoned, texted or sent word via others, to thank me for the time of prayer. People have shared with me their vulnerabilities, asked for particular prayers and people to be remembered – both public and private intentions – as I have sought to minister the love of God in the COVID-19 climate, that great gift that is at the heart of church life: a love that comes from a greater life-source than our own mere humanity. Christians name that life-source “God”.
I have learnt the value of the rhythm of prayer, something I had taken for granted.
I have heard the cadences of prayer in a new way and, I think, for the first time.
I have been challenged to live my priestly life in a new way, and in many respects, in a more open and vulnerable way, in this digital world that is so often characterised by self-aggrandisement, narcissism and that condition that seems to plaque us all, the obsession with “keeping up with the Joneses”.
I have not sought to do anything new, gimmicky, creative or disingenuous. I have sat in my study, lit a candle, introduced some timeless prayer techniques of slowing down and breathing, reading the words on the page slowly and prayerfully, inviting people to join me. I have been faithful, committed and accountable in a way that might be considered counter-cultural in our hard, fast and often disposable world. I have learnt the value of community in unexpected ways, as I have gently and prayerfully claimed my authority as a priest with fear, trembling and vulnerability, in a new form of community.
In a church building, the community gathers around the altar where the Bible is read, hymns are sung and the sacraments are celebrated. The online community does not have the physicality of that space, so it relies on the openness of each participant to be able to interact with other participants – some known to each other, others not – through the live comments section of Facebook’s Live Video. The unexpected blessing of this community has come when the same folk join the stream and interact with each other by sharing words of greeting, peace, and hope; asking for prayer intentions to be included, or sharing their own needs not just with me, but also with the group.
The success has not been in having the latest technology, or picture-perfect quality, or even in the clarity of sound. The stability of an internet connection can pose irritating challenges in the country. In whatever way one might measure success – and so often in the institutional church this is measured through annual statistics of how many people attend church services – the success of the Daily Office is found in the faithful turning up to pray, day in, day out. It does not require particular creativity, but a faithfulness to the liturgy and an invitation to share in a sacred moment.
This is an invitation offered to all people, wherever they are and in whatever circumstances they find themselves. It is like the invitation offered in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus says:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
I am reminded of the community of nuns whose lives inspired the BBC series Call The Midwife, who prayed, ministered and nursed in the East End of London even through the Blitz. Sister Monica Joan, the aged and endearing Sister of St Raymond Noonatus (a take on the real-life Sisters of St John the Divine) says: “The liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts, the words are aligned, like a rope for us to cling to.”
This has been true for me, and I hope for those who join me day-by-day, in the Prayer of the Church.
The Revd Mathew Crane is the Parish Priest of Camperdown in the Western District.