'The World is my Parish'
Revd. Dr. Joanne Cox-Darling is Acting Superintendent, Wolverhampton Methodist Circuit Brewood, Codsall and Coven Methodist Churches.
‘The World is my Parish’, or so the founder of the Methodist Church Movement John Wesley wrote in his diary. Never before has his words held quite so much weight. With our buildings closed, we are learning afresh what it might mean for us as local communities, a national organisation, and a global church – to see the whole world as our place of ministry.
My particular location is a small pocket of South Staffordshire, so this reflection comes out of a local context; albeit framed with the collegiality of living and working as part of the wider Methodist Church.
The recent lockdown and continuing impact of Covid-19 has enabled us to stop, reflect, and work out what really matters for our faith development and for our community work. We have been able to accelerate critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing them, and who they are for. We have – almost accidentally – discovered that ministry amongst the housebound is not only possible, but desirable. In turn, we are learning to confess where our routines have excluded those for whom physical isolation and exclusion, is a daily reality rather than exotic.
One of my local churches have taken the opportunity to discover more ancient spiritual traditions, and have constructed a labyrinth walk in the car park – an invitation to play and pray. In turn, we are discovering the treasures of ancient practices of the past to inform our present presence ministry on a main road, and using it to frame our conversations for our physically-distanced future.
From a personal perspective, as an ordained clergyperson, I have been challenged to work out what a pastoral and sacramental ministry looks like when pastoral care is online or via phone; and what sacramental ministry means when Holy Communion is effectively suspended. My personal and imperfect experiment and exploration has led me to firstly bake two loaves of bread everyday – and to give one away to a member of the church. I might not be able to offer Eucharist, but I can take bread to God’s people. The second gentle offering is to encourage the soul-care of those walking passed our front door. Every week I offer a thought for the day, and an ritual or activity with which to respond. Each one designed to offer scripture and wellbeing in an accessible way. It’s tentative, it’s gentle – but there is something vocationally here about offering hope in the midst of fear; grace in the midst of chaos.
The challenges of the lockdown are manifold. Learning to live with the anxiety of day to day tasks, not being able to be as productive as we might ‘normally be’, homeschooling toddlers whilst working from home with the guilt and the gift which come from having a garden space to share with them – to the bigger strategic questions. I am currently in oversight of 23 church buildings in about 12 square miles across a City. Our team have no idea how many of those churches will reopen, will be able to be financially viable, or who will have a congregation with enough confidence to return to face to face community. For the wider community, there are still huge implications of delayed grief and bereavement which will continue for years to come.
Theologically, a big question remains about the nature of God, and how a global pandemic reframes our comfort zones when it comes to God’s power and activity in the world.
In the fullness of time, as life begins to move towards a new normal, our small ecumenical community will continue to collaborate – both at liturgically significant moments (Christmas and Easter), but also with how we provide sufficient support into our schools and care homes. We are learning how to listen – both between ourselves, and within a hurting, confuse, and occasionally ambivalent community.
The world is our parish. We are a church discovering that God is not confined by our walls, nor our best laid plans. We are a church rediscovering truths deep within our tradition: small groups, social justice, worker’s rights, healthcare, and systemic holiness. Helpfully, we were already doing some of this work already, but the pandemic has accelerated our thinking and our practice. Our future is in one respect more tentative, and yet now more than ever, we are noticing where God’s kingdom is present.