When I was invited to be the speaker for this event, I had visions of the past dinners I had attended during my ministry in the Diocese of Toronto: the chaos and noise of Holy Trinity, Trinity Square as people mingled, laughed, and enjoyed refreshments; the silent auctions in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel; and the enormous ballroom filled with tables of Anglicans and friends from across the diocese, gathered to support the ministry of the Bishop’s Company over food, wine and conversation. Little did I know I would instead be recording my remarks in the small chapel at 135 Adelaide Street in the middle of a global pandemic! This is certainly a sign of our times. Our expectations have been upended, as if we have all been tossed into the vortex of a hurricane and nothing is the same nor will it be again.
My personal “hurricane” has been the experience of the past year of being elected as Primate, leaving a ministry in a new diocese I had grown to love, living in airport waiting rooms as I travelled Canada and the world, and seeking to digest new responsibilities. Then confined to home with no idea how to be a Primate who did not travel to meet the Church across the country. I have learned how to connect on Zoom, to conduct meetings remotely, to video-record sermons and talks in my living room, and do Facebook live! I am also learning how to live in ambiguity and uncertainty every day.
Each of you has a similar story to tell of the normal routines of your work, family and church lives suddenly brought to a complete halt by COVID-19. Families are figuring out home or online schooling. Workplaces are learning how to meet on Zoom and work from home. We live in isolation from family members and fear for the elderly or immunocompromised. Businesses are unsure of their survival, and we all experience the losses of community, special events, sports, arts and entertainment.
We have been devastated by the rapidity with which the interconnected systems of our economic and social worlds could collapse, even as we are grateful to live in a country where government supports have cushioned the fall and sought to address health needs.
Now – six months later – the immediacy of the hurricane is over. The chaos and devastation are being assessed. We have learned new daily routines. We carry masks in our pockets, purses and cars. We step farther apart when someone approaches. We check with friends and family about if, when and how we can meet, as we have different tolerance levels for contact. The future is still uncertain as the financial realities have not yet fully reached us. In-person worship has restarted, but it is not the same – seated apart, masked, no singing permitted, communion in one kind only and no coffee hour! Hardly the experience of Christian community we long for.
The hurricane also exposed cracks in our social structures that must be addressed: inequities in expectations of those lowest on the economic ladder who provide essential services to all. Racial inequities that cannot be ignored any longer. It would be easy to sink into a state of depression at the enormity of the challenges we face, the continuing risks, the slowness of progress added to the continuing depressing global news of recurrences of the virus and natural disasters.
I can hear you murmur, “Well, this is certainly not an uplifting talk! Surely we need something more.”
We do, for this is the Bishop’s Company Cabaret: a company of people in the name of Christ committed to the great commandment, “Love God and love neighbour as self,” and committed to the gospel message that is always one of hope.
Tonight I want to point to a few images of hope and promise that have helped me remember that we are resilient and to where I see Anglicans drawing on that resilience and our faith as encouragement to all of us for the long road ahead.
I live in London, Ont., a city that has a vision for keeping green spaces and walkways in the midst of all areas. Near my home is such a walkway through the woods between backyards – a gravel path and boardwalk – that at the beginning of the pandemic still crunched with snow and ice. At the beginning of the lockdown, I quickly realized I needed to walk every day. I needed to smell fresh air to be in touch with God’s creation and with the timeless rhythms of the seasons and their capacity to renew themselves every year. On these walks, I began to see surprising messages – hand-painted rocks with messages of encouragement: you are loved; stay strong; breathe. I saw Easter eggs, ladybugs and beetles – even Spiderman! Small birdhouses were hung on the trees. The neighbours I never saw were leaving messages of hope: you are not alone; we are in this together.
I saw the same signs of encouragement among friends, family, churches and staff, through emails, phone calls and Zoom gatherings. We may have lost coffee hour at church, but Zoom coffee hours popped up where people could gather, encourage and offer prayers. A friend reported regular concerts given by someone in the same building from their balcony; people gathered in the parking lot below, or on their balconies listening, clapping and cheering. Signs in windows or banging pots proclaimed support for frontline workers. There were drive-by birthday celebrations and lawn signs for graduates.
Though stopped from gathering in person, people found other ways to encourage and be present. Due to missing graduation ceremonies, an Anglican Youth Program in Vancouver delivered graduation gift bags to graduates with gifts and a mini cap! Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson in Montreal delivered the graduation certificates to Master of Divinity grads at Montreal Diocesan College by placing the certificate tubes in the crook of her crozier and handing it to them on an outdoor staircase! Huron Church Camp – knowing it would have no regular camps in the summer – made its space available to families wanting to come for a day picnic – a chance to get away from home and enjoy the outdoors! Other camps created online opportunities to engage. Confirmation classes and youth groups met online, sometimes even with the Primate!
I love to sing, and I sing in a community choir that is now cancelled for at least another year. We cannot sing in church together, either. For me, the harmony of an orchestra or choir or any combination of instruments is a symbol of the kind of community we seek to create where the gifts of each are needed in order to create the whole.
We are different and individual but part of the same body, and when all are honoured, recognized and can contribute to something greater, then each part is created for the good of all. So to see choirs and orchestras come together online and find a way to create music that is greater than each part is a sign of hope. It is not easy. You cannot play together online, as the signal delay plays havoc with coordination. Each member must listen to a track of one or more other parts and play with them while recording themselves, and then each part must be then coordinated together to produce the whole. A lot of work done by many. Whether it was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or a high school choir or a professional chamber ensemble or someone spoofing a well-known song with new lyrics, people have brought music to life to share online, creating beauty and lifting the human spirit.
Human beings are creative and resilient and capable of more than we often imagine. We will get through this together. Despite the rampant individualism of our time (epitomized unfortunately in the refusal by some to wear a mask or social distance) we have recognized our need of one another and the need to connect virtually, across time and space and physically across a room or garden, and acknowledge we share this time together. We have also realized afresh that we are profoundly interconnected and our very lives depend on those we often acknowledge the least, both in respect and economically.
The signs of hope I have pointed to are not big. They are moments in time, ephemeral and small tokens of the capacity for human beings to see beyond the pain and struggle now and emphasize the most important values.
The other forces around us remain powerful and destructive. The virus is still strong. We do not yet have a vaccine. Those who are angry and disbelieving readily create havoc. Economic forces remain uncertain.
I expect the disciples felt the same after the death of Jesus – powerful forces ranged against them and an uncertain future. But once they had experienced the reality of the resurrection, once they had been touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, that small band of disciples found hope at every turn in the face of imprisonment, opposition, beatings, and ridicule and changed the world. The faithfulness of God is the touchstone that defeats even death itself.
When I finished university and prepared to travel to India to teach, a friend gave me a locket with a scripture verse I have never forgotten. The locket has disappeared in the mists of time but the verse remains in my heart: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” It is a part of Deuteronomy 31:8 as Joshua faced the challenge of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land: “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
I pray that the small signs of hope around us in the resilience of the human spirit in community and God’s promise to be with us whatever lies ahead, will give us strength to build the community of grace, mercy and justice God longs to see and keeps us hopeful every day.