The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, discerns how Church must change, amid and after the coronavirus pandemic
There is so much for us to be discerning about at the moment. How shall we care for each other? What might we think about God? How can we maintain good mental and physical health? What will the future look like? I sense that many people will have asked themselves those questions during the lockdown, as much as ever before.
I’ve relearned that, among the best ways to care for others, there is the telephone. I know that because of how much it has meant to me when, completely out of the blue, people have picked up the receiver to find out how we are. Thanks be to God for Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the first practical telephone) and all his successors.
Given all that Covid-19 has thrust at us, considering what to think about God has also seemed important. I have discovered, as so often before, that grappling with the scriptures remains irreplaceable. They are the highest authority for what we believe and do, and they are as eloquent for me as when first I started to explore them 40 years ago. A family in one of the churches I serve recently endured a protracted health difficulty in hospital. One of them cried out: ‘Where’s God in all of this?’ His father replied: ‘In the hospital with you.’ That with-us-ness of the Bible’s God is a pearl without price. Thanks be to the God incarnated in Jesus Christ, and for all in whom he lives.
For many, maintaining good mental and physical health hasn’t been easy, either. I cannot overstate how grateful I am that ten minutes’ walk from our front door is the scene pictured above. It’s there for me to enjoy whenever I go for a constitutional walk. Striving for the wellbeing of people for whom such places are not available – for whatever reason – has to be a significant dimension of the policies and strategies that bear us through the crisis. Thanks be to God for every professional and volunteer whose contribution is securing and sustaining our health.
And then there’s our discerning of what the future will look like. In part, it is out of our control. The virus will do its thing, and has already altered life unrecognisably. To what should we long to return, and from what old ways should we be pleased to be released? I can’t discern the specific answer but I do know the we don’t have the luxury of simply getting back to what was.
From the early 19th century, the story has been told of the Quaker meeting where a person objected to the creation of the Erie Canal in New York State. He opined: ‘If the Lord wanted a river to flow through state of New York, he would have put one there.’ Then, after a profound silence, another member rose and, referring to Genesis 26 in his King James Bible, said, simply: ‘And Isaac’s servants digged another a well.’ In the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac didn’t just long for what was; he made provision for the new circumstances in which he found himself. And so shall we. Our circumstances will be different in the future. Yes, there will be old things to which we ought to return, but there will also be new wells to be ‘digged’.
Wells are the source of life-giving water. If the Church is to be a life-giving well in the world that Covid-19 has re-shaped for us, then we must be dug where and how we can be most fruitful. We are called to be the Church in new ways, and in new places. That, of course, is not only about a 2020 pandemic. Being dug in new ways and in new places is what it has always meant to be the Church effectively – from those to whom the Spirit was first given at Pentecost, through every generation until now.
Along with many others to whom I speak, my own sense is that the combination of coronavirus and a contemporary Pentecost will challenge us, as the United Reformed Church, to be re-dug quite fundamentally in how we are structured and organised, in how we worship, and in how we serve God’s mission in today’s world. It’s not because what we were was wrong for yesterday, but that not all of it is right for tomorrow. The world has changed, and among our most urgent discernments is how we must change for the times. As the theologian Walter Brueggemann has it in one of his prayers: ‘The news is that God’s wind is blowing. It may be a breeze that cools and comforts. It may be a gust that summons you to notice. It may be a storm that blows you where you have never been before. Whatever the wind is in your life, pay attention to it.’ (Prayers for a Privileged People, Abingdon Press, 2008)
May that Spirit of Pentecost renew us for a renewing work in the world. Even so, may the same Spirit also breathe God’s peace, such as the world cannot give.
Nigel Uden, 1 June 2020