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Lockdown a pilgrimage, Archbishop of York tells Melbourne

Archbishop shares message of opportunity in lockdown during webinar with St Peter's Eastern Hill

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell: We need to learn what "enough" looks like

By Stephen Cauchi

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, told attendees at a webinar offered by St Peter’s Eastern Hill last month that the COVID lockdown was like a pilgrimage on the Camino trail, despite it being a punishing and unfair experience.

Archbishop Cottrell, who hosted a webinar entitled “Pilgrimage in Lockdown: Walking the Way in a Time of Isolation”, was appointed Archbishop of York and Primate of England in July, replacing John Sentamu.

He is the most senior bishop of the Church of England apart from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. As Bishop of Chelmsford, he visited St Peter’s in 2015.

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee, from Trinity College, welcomed Archbishop Cottrell as an “outstanding leader in the Church” who “focused very much on liturgy and mission, on issues of justice and inclusion”.

St Peter’s Vicar, Father Hugh Kempster, said that Archbishop Cottrell had “touched so many of our hearts and our minds and inspired us in mission” when he visited.

Archbishop Cottrell told the webinar that lockdown was similar to solitary confinement, the “highest punishment” available. It was “really, really tough” for those living in small apartments.

Those saying COVID was a “great leveller” and “no respecter of status or position” were wrong: “It’s been the poor who have suffered the most, it’s always the way.”

But although solitary confinement was a punishment on one hand, solitude was also “the great invitation of the spiritual life”.

The Desert Fathers movement of the third and fourth centuries – Christians who retreated into the Egyptian desert in search of solitude and spirituality – was an early example of this.

Desert Father Abba Moses, he said, would tell novices seeking spiritual wisdom: “Don’t go to me: go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

In the same way, “go to your sitting room and your sitting room will teach you everything”.

However, Archbishop Cottrell noted that “I’ve found that a very challenging thing to live with over these past five or six months … everything else can be taken away from you in lockdown except encounter with God and encounter with self”.

But there was an opportunity during lockdown “to make an interior journey” where “I will deepen my encounter with God and also deepen my encounter with myself”.

“What have you discovered about yourself over the past five or six months?” he asked.

Archbishop Cottrell said that lockdown had given him time to indulge his hobby of printmaking and there was “nothing wrong with watching the television”.

“I’ve watched more television in the last few months than I’ve watched in the previous 20 years and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. US crime drama series Breaking Bad was “fantastic”, he said.

“I’ve encountered things about myself and things have kind of risen up within me that I’ve rediscovered. So for me, I’ve been on a journey and that journey … is like a pilgrimage.”

The Camino walk along northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was “the great pilgrimage walk”, he said. “It was without doubt the most significant thing I’ve done spiritually for a very, very long time.”

He said he had learned many things on the walk, and had written a book about the experience.

Archbishop Cottrell said he “learned what enough looks like” on the walk, and the meaning of the verse “give us this day our daily bread”.

He discovered he only needed two sets of clothing – “wash one, wear one” – and often did not know where he would sleep or eat that night.

This was a “sobering but also liberating discovery”, he said – “just how little I actually needed”.

“That’s when I discovered what the Lord’s Prayer means … please Lord, give me enough for today and save me, stop me, prevent me from wanting more than my share.

“That’s the first lesson I think the world needs to learn during this terrible pandemic. The whole planet is screaming out for us to learn what enough looks like.” 

In the pre-lockdown world, we were “addicted to being busy”, he said.  But instead of feeling “cross and frustrated”, people now had a chance to encounter God and self in a fresh way and appreciate everyday beautiful things – even the grass in the backyard.

“We need to learn to look at them and to spend time with them and to appreciate them differently,” he said.

“If you make your goal the destination, then you’ll never know how to travel well. So much misery is heaped upon the world by those who move quickly and think only of the end.”

In the question and answer session following his presentation, Archbishop Cottrell acknowledged that lockdown had meant a “very long Eucharistic fast”.

“For those of us for whom the Eucharist is central to our spirituality, it’s really, really hard not to receive communion – really hard,” he said.

He recalled fondly his time at Eastern Hill in 2015: “I loved your liturgy and I loved what you do. I was very impressed with the work that you were trying to do and were doing with the poor in your bit of Melbourne.”

He conceded that, as a result of the pandemic, there was the possibility that “very dark and difficult forces which divide us will take hold”. But he was also “hopeful” of a chance to build a “better normal”.

The webinar was held on 26 August.