It has been strange – and rather frightening – to note how Britain’s mood has shifted during the coronavirus lockdown. At first there was a much talk of folk-memories of WWII and the Blitz Spirit – assisted, perhaps, by the Prime Minister being author of a popular book on Churchill and by it being the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and so on. This became tangible with the marking of the 85th anniversary if VE day – flags went up and although there couldn’t be proper street parties or big commemorations, there were muted neighbourly gatherings, plus some formal events to view on-line.
But the mood changed as the weeks dragged on. Boris Johnson became seriously ill with the virus and after recovery seems to have lost his energy and bounce. Difficulties that were endured when they seemed to be of short duration – such as churches being closed – began to feel much more miserable and unnatural. It became boring to have well-off people chattering about the fun of discovering recipes for sourdough bread (v. fashionable) and swapping gardening news, while ignoring the plight of poorer people stuck in high-rise blocks on limited funds.
Then came the demonstrations and riots. Things began with gatherings to express anger at police action in America. Then it began to morph into rioting activity that seemed unconnected with the original theme. Someone scrawled offensive graffiti on the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square and it has now been boarded up – a bleak grey anonymous box at the heart of Westminster.
Signs of hope? Teams of volunteers from Catholic parishes serving tea to homeless people in Trafalgar Square, with others dispensing hearty breakfasts and lunches from a well-known Catholic church nearby. A joy to be involved with this. After a busy session, I walked across St James’ Park, having heard that Westminster Cathedral was now open for prayer.
And it felt like coming home. Some odd arrangements, of course, to comply with rules about social distancing: pumps dispensing hand-sanitizer at the entrance, limited and specific seats marked as available, side-chapels and confessionals sealed off. But the Blessed Sacrament gloriously present on the altar, exposed for adoration, candles glittering alongside. People kneeling. Silence. Some discreet stewarding from cathedral teams and friendly clergy. And a sense of reassurance: here is something unchanging and unchanged.
The reopening of London’s churches has in its own quiet way made history. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, and Dr Justin Welby the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury prayed together before the Blessed Sacrament at Westminster Cathedral and then went together to Westminster Abbey to pray together at the tomb of St Edward the Confessor. Something good about connecting through the long centuries of other plagues, other horrors, to that Saxon king and to the same Lord he worshipped.
And the reopening began the day after the Church worldwide celebrated Corpus Christi, a fitting feast for this resurgence. Something more, too, for those of us who live south of the Thames. On Sunday evening, with the lockdown of churches about to lift, Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark went up on to the balcony above the great doors of St George’s Cathedral, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and accompanied by a server with incense. With a strong and sweeping movement, he blessed the diocese, lifting the monstrance high to send the blessing out across the southern suburbs and down to the Kent coast and the English Channel.
The churches won’t be open for public Masses until July. There is political and social unrest and a long hot summer ahead. All sorts of important things – weddings and baptisms and ordinations, pilgrimages and retreats and get-togethers, to say nothing of the great crucial ordinariness of family gatherings and reunions – have been postponed or put on hold. Many children have missed out on schooling, and some have suffered badly. And we are not at the end of this saga yet.
But the churches are opening, and the renewal begins.
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