English Archbishops: Zeitgeist or Holy Geist?

fish in barrel church 2 (2)

Zeitgeist = ‘Spirit of the age’ or ‘Spirit of the times’.

Holy Geist = don’t bother asking an archbishop (or archbishop-designate) as they probably won’t know.

Talking via email last week to the admirable Ian Paul, I happened to comment that criticizing the Church of England at the moment is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.  He kindly said he would put that one away for future use.  Well sorry, Ian, but I am beating you to it and using it again myself 🙂

‘Shooting fish in a barrel’:

Origin: Prior to the modern days of refrigeration, fish were packed and stored in large barrels. The barrels were packed to the rim full of fish. As such, any shot the entered the barrel would be guaranteed to hit at least one of them. This being the case, nothing would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel.

You would think, in these extraordinary times, that we could reasonably look to our Mother Church for guidance, wisdom and support.  Perhaps we are just looking to the wrong church?  Or could it be that we are simply looking to the wrong leaders? Those who have somehow scrambled their way up the greasy poles to the gilded palaces of  Lambeth  and Bishopthorpe, who now inhabit tiny PC-worlds of their own creation, seem to be ever-further removed from the world the rest of us inhabit.

Not content with closing, yes, CLOSING, every parish church in the country, thereby denying faithful congregations access to their own central place of worship and fellowship, the leadership of what is left of our Church has now surpassed even that. Don’t bother trying to hide it folks, just be shocked without guilt.  After all, what more could they possibly do to render the Church completely separated from those it serves?  Well here it is.

Think that you can still rely on a summons to your priest or a hospital chaplain as you lie on your deathbed with Covid-19 or any other medical issue just now? Think you can expect to have your priest hold your hand, or at least pray with you and give some personal comfort and support as you lie there struggling?  Well, think again, you forlorn hopers!

The Muppet-Designate of York, the Rev Stephen Cottrell, has, in a letter, banned volunteer hospital chaplains from:

‘…going on wards or near patients, including those not displaying symptoms of Covid-19.’

Brace yourselves, dear readers, it gets worse.  He has suggested, very helpfully, that instead,

‘…clergy who wished to volunteer to help the Nightingale [our brand new, purpose built Covid-19 hospital in the middle of London]  should think instead about how they could support NHS staff in other ways, suggesting that they might wish to go shopping for them’.

Yes, you read that right.  Priests, who have taken the adult, well-informed decision to place their own safety second to those they need to help, cannot do so. Instead, they must attend to the people working in the hospital instead, perhaps offering to nip to the shops for them.

Why?   Well it looks as if it is down to those three little words beloved of all bureaucrats and busybodies in the UK – ‘Health and Safety’.  I am not saying that NHS staff don’t deserve chaplaincy support, but surely the principal population in need of spiritual support right now is the one lying in the beds of our fantastic ICUs. But the Muppet-Designate and his letter-co-signee Malcolm Brown have decided that rather than allow priests to visit the bedsides of those who wish to have some one-to-one ministry, they will prevent them from doing so because:

‘….the last thing we want is to put burdens on the health service’.

Surely most of us in the pews can agree that one of the basic elements of a priest’s pastoral role is to minister to the dying and the seriously ill?  If we are to credit our priests with any sense at all, we must respect their decisions around what level of personal exposure they wish to risk.  Apparently thirteen clergy have volunteered to supplement the already struggling hospital chaplaincy services in the London NHS:

‘…but they have been told it would be unsafe to go near patients. Instead, they will be encouraged to provide pastoral care and support to hospital staff as well as helping to facilitate electronic communication between sick patients and their relatives using iPads, though the devices will need to be taken on to the wards by nurses’ [thereby increasing infection risk].

It’s hard to know where to start with this, on so many levels.  From an epidemiological perspective, the hospitals have already said they will train any chaplains in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).  The NHS is well aware of the need for spiritual input where needed as part of the recovery process or of end-of-life care and welcomes it as it helps patients.

We’re not talking about hordes of vicars suddenly invading ICU wards on a daily basis.  And given the high levels of supervision and observation that chaplains will be under, the risks of infection or of spreading it, will be minimal – probably less than in a domestic setting where no protection is in place.

Malcolm Brown, director of mission for the Archbishops’ Council, who co-signed Bishop Cottrell’s letter, even had the brass neck to assert:

‘There are many other things volunteers can do, such as bereavement counselling.’

So we can’t be prayed for or with while we’re dying, but our loved ones can get some bereavement counselling once we’re dead.  How comforting. As many Americans would say,  WWJD*? …. If not WTsomething else. (*What would Jesus Do?)

The suggestion about facilitating electronic communication using iPads and the like is beyond parody.  Having worked on both adult and neonatal ICUs myself, I can tell you that the prospect of using electronic communication to assist someone who needs to be cared for in such a unit is an insult.  There is nothing that can replace the presence and the touch of a person who is there to help.  But hey – the Muppet-Designate of York says that’s all we can expect, so there we have it.  John 11:35.  Look it up.

From the spiritual perspective – God help us.  I did not use the term ‘forlorn hope’, above, without a reason.   At the risk of this post turning into a glossary, let’s look at ‘forlorn hope’ shall we?

A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the leading part in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high. Such a band is also known as the enfants perdus [lost children].

Does that not sound to you like a band of priests bravely entering the field of infection in order to minister to the needy?  Yet today, the Muppet-Designate of York has turned the tables on us and made us, the flock, into the forlorn hope.  We are to be left alone in our hour of need because it is too risky to have a chaplain at our bedside in case he inconveniences the NHS by getting sick himself or simply gets in the way.  You couldn’t make it up.

How many cases do we know of from the past where brave men and women of God have willingly risked disease and death in order to minister to those that society has separated itself from?  Those who subsequently died as a result are too many to list.  And it goes without saying that these sainted individuals whom we know of will be merely the tip of the iceberg. How many unrecognised sacrifices have taken place as a result of men and women of God taking risks to help others?

Of course, I am not suggesting that any chaplains should expect to die today.  Our knowledge of infection control today completely outstrips that of past times, thank God.  But we have to ask – did Jesus refuse to help all those folks with leprosy?  No!  He touched them!  He got near enough to talk to them.  He treated them as valuable people.  If Princess Diana could shake hands with AIDS patients when society thought them outcasts, why on earth can’t our priests sit at Covid-19 bedsides for a few minutes?

What on earth are our Archmuppets and Muppet-Designate, thinking?

Instead of considering the issue of Covid-19 and the lockdown from the spiritual perspective – ‘What are the needs of our people during this time and how can we meet them while maintaining our proper role as pastors?’ – they have chosen to take a route that they think looks ‘responsible’ in the eyes of the world.  But isn’t the role of the Church to stand in the face of what the world thinks when necessary?  If hospitals want more chaplains and are prepared to train and monitor them, and if there is a rush of patients wanting to see them, why on earth is the Church’s leadership saying no? And why on earth are our churches closed to visitors?

Nobody is saying that we should not practice all the usual infection control.  But social distancing and effective, frequent hand washing can all be done while keeping churches open.  The loss of the weekly Eucharist is a massive blow to many – but we understand the need to avoid full services.  Are we to believe that it is beyond the wit of our bishops (don’t all laugh at once) to find a way to make the bread and wine available in church somehow?  We don’t need to all be there at the same time.  All it would take is a couple of days a week when the pre-blessed Eucharist is available to folks coming into church during, say, a 12-hour period.  We already take a pre-blessed Eucharist to the sick at home or in hospital, so what is the difference?

If it is considered safe for us to access supermarkets once a week, then it can also be considered safe to enter our churches once a week in small numbers to take the bread and wine.  But no – our leaders, as usual, have chosen to follow the zeitgeist.

I’ll say it again. John 11:35. Jesus wept.



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