Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of Sodor and Man – 18 March 2020
Sisters and brothers in Christ,
Following yesterday’s instruction that public worship in our churches should be suspended, I write now to give further reflection and guidance on our shared life that continues under the shadow of the virus COVID-19.
There may be practical updates to follow over coming weeks, but the single immutable principle that I ask us to hold to is this: the life and witness and mission of the Church continues. Even if we do not meet physically in our buildings, we continue to be the Church, the Body of Christ which consists of His faithful people as His members. The Archbishops have invited us to a different model of Church over these weeks and months, and I would characterise it as a monastic model: monastic, contemplative, and prayerful in the service of others. There is wonderful precedent for this in the rich Christian tradition of our Island, going back to the earliest monastic pilgrims and hermits of the Celtic Church, and I ask us to grasp that authentic vision for ourselves and in it to find inspiration and courage. So:
Public worship in our churches is suspended until further notice. I do not know how long that period will be. The Governor in Council has declared a State of Emergency on the Isle of Man from 16 March until midnight on 15 April, a period which may be either curtailed or extended, but our suspension of worship is likely to run through Holy Week and Easter and beyond. That means that there will be, for example, no Eucharist of Chrism on Maundy Thursday, and no public worship on Easter Day.
During this time, I ask clergy to continue in the discipline of Morning and Evening Prayer as a means of maintaining the daily cycle of worship. I invite Readers, and indeed everyone else for whom that is part of their tradition, to do so also. You can do this at home: for clergy, it may be in Church, and (observing physical distancing) you may even do this with colleagues from within your Mission Partnership, although it cannot become an act of public worship. I will be saying Morning Prayer at 9.00 am and Evening Prayer at 6.00 pm every day, so if you say it at those times then we are worshipping and praying together and with one another – but of course any time that suits you is fine. Morning and Evening Prayer are readily available online, with the readings and psalms fully set out for each day: enter ‘Common Worship Daily Prayer’ into your search engine, and that is the form of prayer that I will be using.
As far as is possible, I ask parishes to consider opening churches at least for part of the day, and if possible on Sunday morning, with a person in attendance to provide pastoral support to visitors. The capacity to do this will depend very much on the will and availability of individuals, not least Churchwardens but others also, and I encourage us to think about whether we can do this as our contribution as believing Christians in support of our community. The Church has always been available and open in times of great need such as war or pestilence, and we must do the same now. If the Church is open for individual access and private prayer, that is a wonderful witness. We most certainly do not close down. I will be exploring the local practicality of this with Mission Partnership Leaders, Incumbents, and Churchwardens.
There is a real call at this time for social support and pastoral care, and the responsibility for this lies with all of us. Self-isolation must not lead to isolated people. As congregations and parishes and communities and villages, let us support one another: regular or daily telephone contact with those who are self-isolating, help with shopping and practical tasks, spiritual friendship, identifying where there is individual need and being active in meeting it. You will know how this is best done in your own context. Please support one another and care for one another as best you can: not just one another, but your wider community as well, both locally and indeed beyond.
Living without the sacrament of the Eucharist is perhaps the greatest privation for Christians, and I do not currently see any alternative to this. While in theory it could be possible to relax the rules on Communion by Extension, it is difficult to imagine that this can be achieved within the current restrictions on social and physical contact. There have been many times in the past when sacramental abstention has been required of Christian communities, and, if it is helpful to you, I commend the practice of ‘spiritual communion’: expressing one’s desire to be united with Christ despite the absence of the very sacrament that enables it. I offer a prayer for Spiritual Communion at the end of this letter.
For Wardens and clergy and others, the current guidance on occasional offices is as follows:
- Funerals: funerals can continue to take place, but guidance is ‘close family only’ in attendance. Undertakers have been advised of this.
- Weddings: in theory, these too can continue, with minimal attendance: the couple, the minister, the two necessary witnesses. In practice, it may be best to advise postponing. Banns cannot be called when worship is suspended, so any wedding over this period would need to be by Licence.
- Baptisms: these too can take place in theory, although again postponement is the best advice. If a baptism does take place, it should be for pressing reasons, with attendance limited to parents and godparents. Clergy officiating should use a shell rather than the hand, should ask a parent or godparent to hold the baby, and should be meticulous in matters of hygiene.
In all these services, rules of physical distancing (2 metres apart) must be observed. I will communicate any further guidance as it comes.
Regarding the three priorities which I have set for us as a Diocese, everything above fits within the first priority: Partnering in Mission. The second priority is Inhabiting the Faith, and that too will be fulfilled if we continue faithful in prayer, private devotion, study, and the reading of scripture. The third priority is Sustaining Ourselves, so I ask you to give full and absolute attention to your own well-being at this disorientating time: physical, mental, moral, spiritual. Draw deeply upon those resources which sustain you.
All meetings which are not essential should now be cancelled, including PCCs and diocesan committees. Guidance on APCMs is expected shortly. Pastoral visits will also need to be reduced to the essential minimum.
Below is a link to the current information on the Church of England website, listing (among other things) a number of digital resources. You will also find a further link to a range of prayers and services for use in this context.
I will remain in contact with everyone as fully as I possibly can over these weeks and months. I am always happy to receive questions, and I will answer them to the best of my ability.
Contact numbers are 01624 622108 for this office, or for emergencies 07624 285558.
This comes with my love and my prayers as we walk this road together.
A prayer for now:
Keep us, good Lord,
under the shadow of your mercy
in this time of uncertainty and distress.
Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,
and lift up all who are brought low;
that we may rejoice in your comfort
knowing that nothing can separate us from your love
in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
A prayer for those in isolation:
God of compassion,
be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.
In their loneliness, be their consolation;
in their anxiety, be their hope;
in their darkness, be their light;
through him who suffered alone on the cross,
but reigns with you in glory,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
A prayer of Spiritual Communion (for use when you are unable to attend the Eucharist):
Lord Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire you in my soul. Since I cannot receive you now sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my soul. As though you were already there, I embrace you and unite myself wholly to you; permit not that I should ever be separated from you. Amen