A Gift from COVID: Online Communities and Gospel Living
In the spirit of adventure, early 2020 at the beginning of our first lockdown due to COVID-19 in Melbourne, I decided to attend an overseas online Anglican Church. I chose St James, Piccadilly in London, because their Rector, Lucy Winkett, has stirred my imagination over the years with her podcasts when Canon Precentor at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. In 2010, her Lent book, Our Sound is Our Wound was a soulful, enriching read. I promoted it that year in the Bookroom. Lucy is a deeply perceptive priest, attuned to the challenges of not only local concerns, but our world humanity. Her language is carefully modulated, poetic and hard hitting. I knew she’d have some worthwhile things to say during a world pandemic. I’ve never in fact physically been to St James’ Piccadilly nor St Paul’s London. But early 2020, I was ready for new life it might have to offer.
Lucy doesn’t preach at every Sunday at St James Piccadilly, and I soon was to hear a number of very different clergy and their variety of perspectives. Intelligent and engaging they all are. Over the last 14 months, my own Christian perceptions have been challenged and inspired by their words. I was very moved this week during our online Camino Companions Zoom at St James, when Parish Council member, Adolfo, spoke of me now as a member of the St James Community.
Whether online or in person, community is born out of what we share amongst each other. We can be part of several close communities. We can give out to one another material objects, food, our very physical presence can be a form of giving. But sharing can also take the form of words and stories and listening: all gifts distributed in any healthy community. And for those in Christian community and other religions, we not only share our stories and thoughts and feelings, but also pray for one another. These days, after saying Evening Prayer or Compline, with my St James friends at 6am here Melbourne time (when I wake up in time for it!) I go through my daytime pondering them fast asleep or wakeful and restless during their night. We are a community in all time zones across the world - London, Melbourne, but also Paris, the United States, Spain…….
In one of my very early Zoom greet sessions after online worship at St James, parishioner Eleanor Butler recognised me from the previous week’s Zoom. She said: ‘one day I hope I’ll be able to give you a big hug.’ That day may or may not ever happen. I may never even get to visit St James. And that’s not really the point. The friends I’ve been making there are warm and hospitable as if they were sitting comfortably in my very lounge room - which often they are but in the form of small brightly coloured digital boxes.
Eleanor’s husband, Dick Butler, is a retired English Anglican clergyman. She’s a retired doctor. They have a house in Dorset, where they’ve spent their lockdowns. But also an apartment in the Barbican, London. For many of their retirement years they’ve lived between the two places: enjoying London theatre and art galleries, attending St James Piccadilly and spending Summer golfing and long walks in the South West of England. Eleanor and I now email one another a few times a week -sharing our thoughts and concerns, our joys and new milestones in or out of lockdown.
When Dick was active in clergy life he wrote a book: The Four Gospels and Other Texts: A Critical Handbook of the New Testament. He first wrote the material as a set of fact sheets for his congregation, a hand book, ‘their aim was not to persuade but to inform.’ This book is designed to inspire us to critically examine our own New Testament assumptions, help us grow and mature in our biblical understanding. By exploring the different themes between Gospels, noting the sources and examining the culture they were born in, the handbook serves to bring our thinking back to basics. There are also one or two radical ideas which we are invited to make up our own minds about.
A tangible gift from a community made online. When I opened the box of The Four Gospels and Other Texts books gifted by Eleanor via mail to the Bookroom, it was as if she herself stepped out: “Hello, here I am. I am real.” The book is now available for sale in the Bookroom. Too often we can dismiss the world of internet YouTube and Zoom gatherings as ephemeral and second rate and fail to to take each other seriously as community. But in this last 14 months, this online community has formed so much of my heart and Christian understanding. The Gospel burns bright and true - lighting our immediate surrounds as well as our Zoom communities.