A Reflection. Archdeacon Mark Ireland

Return from Exile: the Challenge for the Church”


Now that the lockdown has been extended for at least three more weeks, it is a good time to begin to reflect on what we have learned during this strange period of social isolation, and how we might do things differently when we are able to reopen our church buildings and resume gathering for public worship. The experience of the Israelites in exile in the 6th century BC is a good starting point for our reflection. Not that we have been carried off into exile by an invading army, but like the Israelites we have had a significant experience of dislocation and isolation and been cut off from our usual place(s) of worship.

When the Israelites first went into exile following the destruction of the temple they had a massive sense of dislocation and loss – ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137.4) However as the years went by the experience of exile turned out to have many positives – they re-engaged with their founding stories, they repented and turned away from idols, they studied the law and wrote down much of the Old Testament in its present form. And when in time Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to the Promised Land, the trickle back was fairly slow – it seems to have taken at least a century.

The returning Israelites were also less attached to their central shrine – it took the prophet Haggai to challenge the Israelites to focus on rebuilding the temple, rather than on re-establishing their home and family life: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: These people say, “The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be built.” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’ (Haggai 1.2-4)

Our own experience of exile through the coronavirus pandemic began with a massive sense of dislocation and loss. Many of us found it hard to imagine a country in which no church buildings were open and Easter had to be celebrated at home in social isolation. Yet this side of Easter we can recognise that there have been some significant positives to weigh alongside the loss. The challenge for us now is to think about how we might hold onto those positives as we begin to plan for our return from exile. The world around us has changed in many ways for good (perhaps in both senses of the word) and if we simply try to resume doing things in the old way, we may find that the world has moved on, and that we have failed to learn from the painful experience of recent weeks.

For all that the Israelites must have returned to the promised land with high hopes, they soon discovered that rebuilding their lives and the life of the nation was a hard slog, which led to a spirit of resignation and apathy that continued into the time of Malachi. I suspect that many in our communities will emerge from this pandemic battered, bruised and disillusioned, and (as so often happens) looking for someone to blame. It may be that we can only inspire people to look forward to ‘What now?’ when we have given them the chance to properly lament the trauma and loss that they have experienced, and to grieve for the loss of loved ones. The restrictions on attendance at funerals will leave issues of grief unexpressed or unresolved that may take months to work through. Scripture provides a rich language of lament and grief; allowing space for such feelings to be expressed will be important before many are ready to move forward and rebuild.

However alongside this weariness there is also unparalleled opportunity presented by this current crisis. Amid the fear and trauma there is a resurrection of community spirit and a rejection of selfishness as socially unacceptable – witness the Thursday evening claps for the NHS and the amazing response to 99-year old veteran Captain Tom’s fundraiser. As Pete Grieg (founder of the 24/7 prayer movement) has commented, ‘Our friends and neighbours are asking questions because everything is shaking and suddenly the claims of the Gospel are making more sense than ever before.’ Many in lockdown have time on their hands and are beginning to search online for deeper answers to the questions of existence and purpose. This is seen both in the large numbers accessing online worship who are not church members, and where churches are finding ways to do enquirers’ groups or small groups online, the significant numbers of new faces who are asking to join in.

Return from exile involves both hard work and new opportunity. The prophet Haggai challenged the Israelites to some hard thinking, changed priorities and energetic rebuilding as they returned from exile. However he also promised them God’s active presence among them, so that they need not be afraid, ‘But now be strong O Zerubbabel…Be strong all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you…and my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ (Haggai 2.4-5)

Interestingly the rebuilt temple seems to have been much more modestly built than the one before the exile – ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now…?’ (Haggai 2.3) and yet God promises his people that his glory will be seen more powerfully in the modest structures of the future than the great edifices of the past. And he offered them the chance to have a part in realising God’s greater purpose. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘And in this place I will grant peace.’ (2.9)

Financial resources for the Church’s mission may be tight as economy contracts and churches recover from the loss of cash income during the lockdown, but in God’s economy the Church is strong when it seems weak. The Early Church won the battle of ideas against the might of Rome not because it had power or wealth, but because it showed love to the poor. In recent days some of those newspapers that have been most hostile to the church and organised religion have begun to take a very different tone as they have seen how local churches have cared for the poor and the sick and the dying in this time of pandemic.

So as we prepare for life after lockdown, in what ways might God be wanting to challenge us as a Church to change for good? Here are some questions which I find deeply challenging, which you may like to ponder with your church’s leadership:

  • Having reduced our carbon footprint massively in recent weeks, how might we (as churches and as individuals) use this as a step towards long-term reduction in carbon usage, so that we move towards the pressing goal of becoming carbon neutral to avert climate catastrophe?
  • Having gained a whole new fringe of people through live-streaming and online worship, how do we help them to continue to engage in worship, and to grow from passive viewers to active disciples? (Of course some of them may see themselves as already being active disciples, but not inclined or able to gather regularly in a church building.)
  • Having involved lots of church members in joining with their clergy in the daily offices (morning and evening prayer) through live streaming, how can we continue to keep the daily office as a corporate activity of priest and people (as Thomas Cranmer clearly envisaged in the Book of Common Prayer), rather than reverting to it being done by the priest alone or in secret?
  • Having enable housebound members and those with disabilities to join in streamed worship on a Sunday morning and feel much more connected to the church family through Facebook and Zoom, how can we continue to involve them in congregational worship, rather than just going back to worshipping with one person once a month for private home communion?
  • Having developed new networks of one-to-one pastoral care through the lockdown, ringing people regularly, running errands for those in self isolation, which of these new patterns might we be able to sustain, to better pastor and disciple people one-to-one to equip them to live as confident disciples of Christ in everyday life?
  • Having fasted from the eucharist for an extended period, how can we review the liturgy we offer, and teach and prepare people to make the opportunity to receive the sacrament again something really special and significant?
  • Having taught and encouraged Christians to celebrate Christian festivals like Easter in the home and around the meal table, how can we equip families – and those who live alone – to make the home the place where faith is expressed, lived out and passed on?
  • Having been deprived of our church buildings for an extended period, how can we ensure that they will no longer be locked for six days a week, but open and available to the community to come and visit, reflect and pray?
  • Having had to change our service pattern radically in lockdown, how can we take a fresh look at our pattern of worship to see what long-overdue changes might help us to engage more of the diverse communities within our parish in regular worship?
  • Having established a healthier work/life balance for many clergy, with a daily period of exercise and evenings at home with family, how can we sustain these gains when regular activities restart?
  • Having learned to embrace simpler pleasures  – walks from the house, time in the garden or allotment, cooking at home, evenings with the family – all of which both save money and save the planet, how might we continue to consume less, so that we save money, live more sustainably and release funds to give generously to God’s work and those in needKeep us, good Lord,under the shadow of your mercyin 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.