To Be A Pastor In Covidtide
My friend the Rev. Daniel French, an Anglican vicar in a seaside parish in southern England, is struggling to serve his people during lockdown. He’s not the only one. Father French writes in The Spectator:
A year of living through a pandemic has taken its toll on the best of us. Vicars like me are no exception.
As a healthy and normally upbeat 52-year-old, this feeling of gloom is frighteningly new. Anecdotal stories from clergy friends tell a similar story to my own: the urge is to curl up and mask the misery with binge marathons of Netflix box sets. But this brings only short-term relief. A cursory look at social media posts show that a good number of vicars are struggling to keep it together.
The pressures on vicars come from every quarter. Some vicars have been landed with the impossible task of maintaining empty churches as elderly volunteers withdraw to shield or isolate. I know one vicar who seems to have doubled up as a cleaner, flower captain, gardener, painter and a handyman, up ladders fixing broken windows. The likelihood is that community projects in some churches, food banks for example, are being carried by the incumbent alone. This is a recipe for burnout.
The liturgical and worship element of our vocation is also vastly reduced. Even those of us who are keen on keeping public worship going know that the majority of our flock are reluctant to leave home. An enormous amount of energy in committee meetings was given last year to make churches and worship Covid compliant to the gold standard. These hallowed places are more sterile than any Silicon Valley microchip factory. Yet despite churches being relatively safe, attendance remains low. I don’t blame those who would rather stay at home, of course. But it’s still disheartening to see so few turn up.
For many vicars like me, morale is further dented by a suspicion that theological absolutes – those things that make up the core beliefs of a Christian – are being forgotten in response to the pandemic. I grew up being told that Holy Communion contained a supernatural presence like nothing on earth. When Covid arrived at our shores, the deeper magic (to paraphrase C S Lewis) of the Eucharist seemed to count for nothing. I have been told that even giving the Last Rites could be a safety issue. Gone also is the notion that our churches are ‘thin places’ that straddle this world and the next. The drive to make our churches clean is understandable. Yet I fear the metaphysics of the Christian faith have been lost. Hardly anyone seems to care. I could cry.
What an interesting concept: that the metaphysics of the Christian faith have been lost in Covid. Father French goes on to write about how hard it is to be a priest and to want to go out and help people who are suffering in Covid, but to not be able to do so. Read the whole thing.
And, if you’re on Twitter, follow Father French @holydisrupter.
Any clergy or church personnel reading this, what has your experience been? Please go to the comments section to help us understand what you’re going through. Readers, this thread is going to be for clergy and other church personnel. If you wish to submit a comment anyway, I’ll consider it if you’re writing strictly about the experience of churchgoing and church life during Covid, but I’m going to moderate this thread with a heavier than usual hand, simply for the sake of keeping it focused on the experience of parish priests, pastors, and those who help them.
UPDATE: A reader e-mails:
I’d rather not post using Disqus for privacy concerns. I’m a vicar (part-time) at an LCMS church in [state]. I can’t agree more with Vicar French’s comment that “The church should be doing much more to reach these people by speaking emphatically and positively about death as a part of life.” We are seeing this in our congregation, but in a departure from Vicar French’s experience it is many of our younger members (mostly educated urban couples with kids) who have withdrawn from church. I think it hints at what he says about the positivity of death. Our older members get this, but the younger ones don’t. Couple that with a younger member’s attachment to and proficiency with platforms like Zoom, then we shouldn’t be surprised at low attendance rates – even in the theologically conservative denominations like ours that hold onto the sacraments as a means of grace and forgiveness that should be of consolation in times like this.
The one thing we cannot discount in this discussion is the fear of being perceived as some kind of social monster because you don’t conform to the world’s views about life and death. That’s one of the worst aspects of this — that Christians are afraid of being shunned in a social group instead of being afraid of losing their faith.
Covid is a terrible winnower.