At this moment of uncertainty and, for some, danger there’s evidence that this hidden kingdom, whether you call it Shambahla or of God, is alive and well. There’s a new sense of community and neighbourliness, a recognition of and gratitude for those working in the National Health Service and Social Care, a determination to keep family relationships alive and well, a concern for the homeless, the elderly, the isolated, a desire to volunteer and help out. It’s not everywhere of course and there are still accounts in the news of muggings, violence and selfishness. There are people for whom social distancing and any sense of lockdown is horrific, especially if living with someone of a violent nature so that frustration can then erupt in abuse. But the goodness is tangible and people are commenting on it even though they wouldn’t use religious concepts to describe it.
Like families, religious communities are having to adapt to the new situation that we all find ourselves in. And they are doing it, like others, through the use of technology. But in doing this they continue to be what they have always been – basically a support to one another. I’m aware of this because there have been some requests from local and even national government to ask what faith communities are doing to cope with Covid 19 as though we have to set up new systems or somehow don’t know how to respond. There have been virtual interfaith meetings to talk about it and from what I can gather I think we are all doing rather well. Of course I know my own community best but what is happening in the Catholic Church seems to be happening in other faith communities.
Essential to all faith communities is common worship or practice. For some not getting to their place of worship is difficult and they miss their community. But technology has brought services and prayer moments right into people’s homes. In the Catholic community most parishes are now live streaming their services, some each day but certainly on Sundays. Some priest say Mass in their empty Church but, in the parish that I am attached to, the Mass is said in the small oratory in the priest’s home. This gives it a sense of intimacy somehow and even allows parishioners to sign in and show they are present through the internet. And what’s interesting is that more people seem to be tuning in that might actually attend in person. Some churches have record attendance. Shrewsbury Cathedral recorded an attendance of 11,446 over Easter with some tuning in from as far away as the United States – an increase of 1,044 per cent.
There are difficulties of course and one of the most difficult is conducting funerals. The present legislation means that burials or cremations take place without the usual religious service and apart from the support of the community. This all adds to the grief of the family and also of the priest who is having to cope with a totally new reality. In my parish the priest has daily podcasts in which he keeps parishioners in touch with his own fears and insecurities, his love and concern for the community, the births and deaths occurring in the neighbourhood; he asks for prayers for the deceased and their relatives; he gives news of the community; he asks people to send in concerns and intentions for prayer and he promises to remember these in his own prayer, private and public. And people respond through Facebook, offering love and support, appreciating all these efforts to strengthen the community.
And all of this and more is being replicated in other Churches and faith communities who are trying to live out their community life in new and innovative ways - and grateful to modern technology for making it possible. Community life will be alive and well, perhaps even strengthened, when our self-isolation is over. What rejoicing there will be when eventually we’re able to greet and hug one another in person. Let’s hope that might happen soon.