Church and Covid

Words delivered this Sunday (Oct. 3rd) by my friend The Rev. Andrew Brown to his Unitarian Congregation in Cambridge, England

Entering the sound of sheer silence — a few words on the occasion of the first face-to-face service in the Cambridge Unitarian Church since May 2020

The last time we were together for a Sunday service in this church was a year and a half ago on March 15th 2020. On the Sunday following, the first Sunday of the the first lockdown, I wrote for you a piece which began by me quoting a single line written by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990):

‘it is impossible to think in advance of experience, and no experience is merely empirical’ (Experience and Its Modes, Cambridge University Press, 1933, p. 117).

I quoted him to help make it clear that it would be a mistake for us to think we could know what the pandemic and the closure of our church would be like and what it would eventually come to mean for us a liberal religious community . . .

          a) before and until we had actually experienced what was coming and,

          b)
that what it was going to be like and what it would mean for us was always going to be more than a simple tally of empirical facts about the event that we were going to be able objectively to observe from our individual locked-down living rooms.

In other words, day by day, we were going to have to take into account the powerful existential experience of going through an actual pandemic and the actual closure of our church.

So here we are this morning, still not yet fully through the pandemic, no longer thinking in advance of the experience but, instead, fully in it. We have been changed existentially by the pandemic, and the service of mindful meditation which has helped us through it so far has now become central to our way of being together religiously — a way of being religious that has helped us value way more than before the art of becoming aware, of paying attention, and of becoming mindful about what is going on in ourselves and in the world.

It has taught us something that our previous way of being religious together made it very difficult for us to experience. What this something is was most memorably gestured towards by the ancient, anonymous Hebrew author who tells us about Elijah, a man who expected to find the voice of that which was for him ultimate in the great wind, the earthquake and the fire. To his surprise he found that his ultimate concern was something he could encounter only by first entering the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

The shared silence of our new morning service has been very hard won by us and I trust that we will come to cherish and further cultivate its subtle gifts for many, many years to come.

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