Photo above – A man wearing a mask lights a candle inside the Orthodox Cathedral in Athens. The Greek government allowed churches to reopen their doors on Sunday. As Irish Churches consider life post-lockdown, they must bring light to the whole community, especially the most vulnerable.
When society does emerge from lockdown, the Church must avoid the temptation to be inward-looking and ensure that it speaks up for the most vulnerable members of the whole community, says Irish Council of Churches president Rev Dr Ivan Patterson in The Irish News.
I am sure that the enforced isolation of these past weeks has given the opportunity to clear out and tidy up around the house.
In the process I have found it interesting to come across items that had been forgotten. Some of them evoking memories of a particular holiday or a family celebration and recalling a time when we had freedom to travel and associate with family.
Covid-19 has changed all that, at least for the foreseeable future. So what can we hope for?
The theologian NT Wright in his book Surprised by Hope presents a positive picture of what God is doing in the world; one in which the Church is to have a significant role.
His argument is that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead has implications not just for the life to come but for the present life – not just life after death but of life before death.
He reminds us how the Gospel story speaks of salvation, of eternal life and of heaven for the individual, but along with that there is a message of hope, of transformation for the present world.
God intends to renew the whole creation, as Paul explains in Romans, so the Church cannot stop its work at saving souls (its first priority) but must bring healing and hope for society. So what does that mean for the Church?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus describes what the actions of God’s people in the world should be like by using the analogy of salt and light: “You are the salt of the earth”; “You are the light of the world.”
Jesus uses these pictures to give the Church and individual Christians a strategy for their engagement with society.
Through Covid-19 we have seen clearly that, as a community, we are only as strong as the protection we offer to the weakest members
Salt preserves food, brings flavour and has healing properties. Light shines in the darkness and brings to our notice what is there.
In Matthew 5, Jesus’ teaching on salt and light follows on from what He has just said about his followers being persecuted as the prophets before them had been.
He sets the Church in the tradition of the prophets. The role of the prophet was to announce God’s judgement or salvation and to call the people to obey his commands.
The Church is surely then to do likewise. She is to be prophetic by bringing the love and grace of God to the lives of people and to bring into the open issues that may be being ignored.
The Church, then, has a particular calling to bring hope and healing as she pastors people at this time of pandemic but she should also be prophetic in acting to build a better and fairer future for all, not least the vulnerable and dispossessed.
It is good to remind those in positions of power and influence that the needs of people should take precedence when the issue of public policy is being discussed.
In the Irish Council of Churches we have been sharing the insights from the various forms of pastoral and community engagement undertaken by our member Churches to help shape a vision for a just and more compassionate society as we emerge from lockdown.
Many of those who have been most vulnerable during the peak of the pandemic were already vulnerable before this crisis hit, and will remain so in the future if long-term measures to protect them and build resilience and social cohesion are not introduced.
There is a particular responsibility for the Church in the public square post-lockdown to resist the temptation to be too inward-looking and think beyond the significant pastoral needs of our immediate membership to ensure that we are speaking up for the most vulnerable members of the wider local community and, globally, the whole human family.
The Church should be prophetic in acting to build a better and fairer future for all, not least the vulnerable and dispossessed
A particular focus of our work prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 was the significance of home and the sense of belonging that comes from a secure home environment.
The experience of lockdown has reinforced our sense of the importance of home as we find ourselves confined there, and longing for the day we can once again receive family and friends there.
This heightened awareness of home needs to inform our engagement with political leaders as they seek to lead us towards recovery.
Through Covid-19 we have seen clearly that, as a community, we are only as strong as the protection we offer to the weakest members.
A true recovery from Covid-19 will be one that has at its heart a commitment to ensuring that everyone will be protected and empowered to protect their health, to care for their families and provide them with a secure living environment.
Churches have pastoral insights and a moral and ethical analysis to bring to the public dialogue on the choices facing Government.
It is true that being ‘salt’ is a major calling of the Gospel. Salt, as we know, brings flavour to our food. It preserves. It has healing properties.
The Christian Church seeks to shake a little salt into hearts and minds as she believes that Jesus Christ brings flavour to life, has the power to still our troubled minds and create new ways of living and caring.
In doing so we remember that Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness.
Rev Dr Ivan Patterson is President of the Irish Council of Churches. He is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.
The ICC was founded in 1923 in the aftermath of the civil war and is a national body through which its member Churches engage, dialogue and act on a wide variety of issues. It meets jointly with the Catholic Church as the Irish Inter Church Meeting.
Faith Matters – The Irish News – 21 May, 2020