From Rev. Anna Bishop
Dear Sisters and Brothers,Here we are in September, and marking the beginning of a new Connexional year, as well as a new academic year.In some Methodist churches the annual Covenant Service is celebratedon the first Sunday in September as a way of renewing commitment as the cycle of church life begins again.
This year we will not be meeting in person to begin the new Connexional year, and for that reason the words of the Covenant Prayerseem more poignant and more essential than ever:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
orlaid aside for you,
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
They are poignant words because for so many of us the experience of this ongoing pandemic is one of suffering, of being laid aside and brought low, of being empty and having nothing. And these feelings are focussed on the ongoing closure of our church building, a second home for many of us: the place where we expect to find comfort and purpose, fulfilment and fellowship.
And yet these words are more essential than ever! The repeated refrain, “…for you…” reminds us over and over again, that even in these disconnected and distressing circumstances, we remain held in God’s Covenant: It assures us that we can live out our discipleship just as truly in these hard times as we do in the good times.
The powerful emphasis of the Covenant Service is on community. The Bible readings all focus on God’s covenant with the beloved community and the corporate response to God’s grace. The liturgy reminds us that, “we have entered this covenant not for ourselves alone, but as God’s servants and witnesses…” As a Covenant Community we are called to share in one another’s experiences of doing and suffering, fullness and emptiness and to bear them together.
Sometimes in our individual lives we are called to choose emptiness, that others might be full or to choose to be brought low, that others might be exalted. When we suffer, when we are laid aside, this is not just an inconvenient interruption in our life of discipleship – it is itself the very path to which we are called to follow Christ.
And this is true of us as a church community as well. It may be that we are called by God to accept the temporary closure of our building, so that other parts of society can re-open, particularly those organisations that serve the most vulnerable – for that is the work of Christ. Perhaps the temporary closure of our building is not just an inconvenient interruption to our communal worshipping life, but the most precious and valuable sacrifice our community can make, the most powerful act of witness to God’s sacrificial love that we can offer in this time of global suffering.
Of course, this is not at all what we want to hear. But in the Covenant Service John Wesley himself reminded us:
“Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in otherswe cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.”
The COVID-Security Strategy Group is working very hard on all the practical measures that we must put in place to keep one another safe when we doopen the building. You can find details of our progress in this edition of the magazine, and we will send everybody detailed information and instructions before finally opening the doors. We are doing all we can to ensure we can open safely when it is right to do so.
Alongside all this practical work, we are constantly asking ourselves, “What is God asking of us?” Is this a moment when we are called to please ourselves or to deny ourselves? We must not expect always to be called to the easy services Christ has to be done.
This applies to us as individuals as well as our community. When we do re-open, it is essential that we all consider not only ourselves, but also one another. We must each ask ourselves, whether we might be called to stay at home in order to protect others –and not only other members of our congregation, but also others we come into contact with in daily life, and those who might be affected if we ourselves were to contract COVID-19.
We live in a time of very difficult choices, when we all need to accept Covenant sacrifices. But we do so with God’s unfailing promise:“Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.”