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‘Alone with God’ – Reflections on Covid–19 and the Lockdown

Dublin Council of Churches’ annual Forum Day took place online yesterday (October 15). Archbishop Michael Jackson was one of the contributors and his reflection is below. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin also spoke at the event. There is a link to his address at the bottom of the page.
‘Alone with God’ – Reflections on Covid–19 and the Lockdown - Dublin Council of Churches’ annual Forum Day took place online yesterday (October 15). Archbishop Michael Jackson was one of the contributors and his reflection is below. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin also spoke at the event. There is a link to his address at the bottom of the page.

I am very pleased and honoured to be invited by The Dublin Council of Churches to share some reflections on the impact and response to COVID–19 and The Lockdown in 2020. The reflections are my own, resulting from perception of others in this time and from my own prayer life, and I am not presuming to speak on behalf of others  

Spirituality: suddenly people of faith found themselves alone with God. Whatever feeling they had before of God, by dint of being church–goers, in the Christian context, was instantly stripped away because being in church was not an option or a possibility. Church–going was withdrawn and withheld as a concerted contribution to the common good and as an expression of civic duty. Not only were Sunday mornings suddenly free; but people were also free of the various activities and connections that bound them together by doing things and by the innocent instinct to domesticate the church building, to make the House of God their house: that might involve flowers, hospitality before or after a service, ushering of worshippers to places to sit, welcoming of visitors, providing music and a whole host of other activities: suddenly all of this was gone

… alone with God in perhaps the most wonderful Seasonal Run of the Christian Year: St Patrick’s Day right through to St Peter’s Day, including Lent, Holy Week, The Triduum, Easter, Rogation, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity. For some, this has worked very well because it has given scope to find God in the home; for others, it has created a dislocation from church that will be hard for them to regain. Lockdown is not only physical but also psychological. What people appreciated most during the intense time of on–line worship was seeing the interior of their particular church; this ought to be a component in any strategic thinking about the efficacy of church buildings: clearly they still are needed, remembered and treasured

The rapidity with which churches and clergy and others went on–line was amazing. The hitherto unwilling were among the early adopters and greatest advocates. I applaud and admire them for bringing ‘God–worshipped’ to where people actually were – at home. I also admire the diocesan cathedral for providing a continuity of worship uninterrupted. This proved to be a genuine expression of the cathedral as mother church of this diocese. The issue now is how do we work the vein of ‘a blended economy’ of in–church and on–line? The deeper question is: Why would we ever again want to exclude those who, a little like Nicodemus or Zacchaeus, have found us in their own ways and effectively on their own terms – who would never perhaps have been introduced to God otherwise?

The return to church with numbers capped at 50 also worked well, whether it was a one–building parish or a multi–building parish. My own experience was of two categories or groups: families and older people. In many ways, this brought me to The Temple in Jerusalem with Simeon and Anna and the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The totality was there in smaller compass. Resilience is now needed as we move in and out of churches open and churches closed for the foreseeable future and I, together with others, need to work towards an ease of moving from one mode to another and in and out of closure and opening – psychologically and physically

Space and privacy: while much of the above sounds and is positive, the erosion of privacy for everyone during The Lockdown is a symptom of a wider societal strain. This undoubtedly has gone with the increase in domestic violence, particularly towards women and children, and with deepened and widened mental health issues as part of what I term ‘mal–being.’ We are accustomed in urban areas to densely–populated medium or small sized spaces to live in; we call them flats, apartments and houses. Our rugged individualisms and personal independences have not equipped us well to be on top of one another for so much of the day. One manifest difficulty is the combination of working from home and schooling at home: too many people in the home at the same time. The other is the dark spectre of ‘underlying symptoms.’ People who previously were out and about participating – irrespective of age or medication – in civic and community and church life suddenly have had no option but to lie low and become invisible. But their departure from ‘the scene’ deprives them of their privacy and raises questions about them in the minds of others, questions such that others have no entitlement to ask

Society, neighbour and community: it suddenly became possible with ease to know, to need and to respond to your neighbours. ‘Catch you later’ had become the great cry recently; as indeed the great cry of The Celtic Tiger years, if anyone asked you how you were in those days, was: ‘Busy, busy, busy …’ But I think the first people to the table in neighbourliness in the RoI were The GAA, local butchers and grocers and pharmacists and postpersons. Whoever was in there first is now immaterial, because there was a rediscovery of the realization and recognition that in Ireland everything is local. Churches of course were part of this but in a sense we had the specific need to preserve our own enterprise as well. I hope that the rediscovered sense of community will feed next into a sense of the urgency about public ecumenism in our Christian self–understanding. This is a matter of significant urgency and perhaps both Christmas and The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity can be focal points towards which we can work nationwide

A time of prophetic gesture: a mixture of decisiveness and withdrawal seems to me to be needed. I use decisiveness because it is clear that God is in every moment doing something; I use withdrawal because it is clear that conventional appropriate touch is no longer possible. Are we therefore in the moment, through the coronavirus, of Easter Morning where we need to work out and work through a theology of Resurrection–before–Ascension: Refrain from touching me; I am not yet ascended to the Father? (St John 20.17) Even if these words are a Gospel–writer’s injection into the text of an idea through an encounter for a specific theological purpose, nonetheless precisely because they are part of our living Scriptural inheritance, they ask of us a question: Are we now called to live a specific type of theological life in these times which are definitely eschatological but I would argue are not apocalyptic? This is still real life, not late night television. Are we being called to a theology of: the dynamic of fragility? and: What might that look like?

Other Faith Traditions and how they were deprived of gathering for Solemnities and Festivals throughout this period also needs to be recognized as does the lateral thinking of Eid in Croke Park where a particular Muslim community had the confidence and the presence of mind to gather three hundred people in an iconic public space in Ireland in 2020 both to gather and to pray

the archbishop of Dublin


You can read Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s address to the Dublin Council of Churches’ Forum Day here.


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