Canon Lynsay Downs reflects on the experiences of social restrictions because of COVID-19 from the perspective of disability theologies.
The Scottish Episcopal Church decided, the week before lockdown began, that the best way to love its adherents and their families was to close church buildings to public worship, encouraging people to stay at home. This decision has been understood in many ways, from over-cautious and unnecessary, to fearful and uncaring but it was rooted in the desire to protect life in all its abundance. When lockdown came later that week, as one nation amongst many, we began to appreciate that this Covid19 was not something happening over there, to someone else, but would touch each and every one of us, whether we became ill or not.
People of all walks of life have been coming to terms with what life under lockdown means; gradually understanding the reasons behind it. For some people this time is easier than others. If you are on a fixed income, at least your finances are unchanged. Some are furloughed with 80% of their usual income, whilst others face financial ruin.
Some are wondering what they should be doing as they cannot work, whilst others continue to work, feeling forgotten about by those in desperate need of activity and contact.
Some are finding the freedom from demanding schedules and endless social contact a relief, whilst others are disoriented by the lack of routine and find their mental health impacted by the lack of daily contact with others.
Some have gardens and access to beautiful countryside, others are confined to small flats in areas where walking outside doesn’t feel safe.
What we all share in common is that our lives have been changed, at least temporarily, by something we had no control over.
In different ways, each and every one of us is experiencing the simultaneous onset of a disability and having to take on new caring roles in an unfamiliar society.
‘Onset of a disability?”, I hear some of you cry with incredulity. I believe, however, this is one of the most helpful ways of understanding the trauma we’re experiencing collectively at present. Something has happened that has: restricted our movement; limited our agency; affected our ability to communicate with others as we usually do. These are disability experiences.
When a disability is acquired rather than innate, there is often a grief process involved in coming to terms with it. Some will be in shock and others denial. There will be times of weeping and anger. Times when loss feels overwhelming before any cherishing can begin.
Occasionally someone, who has felt the strain of keeping up appearances before this disability became clear may be relieved. Relieved at an end to the constant violence of hectic schedules and endless social contact, but not everyone will be in that place.
It is only as we begin to get used to, come to terms with, our new relationships with time and geography that we may find the blessings of this new experience of living. More of this in a later article.
Usually when a family – be that biological or by friendship grouping – experiences the onset of a disability, one member acquires the disability whilst the others take on new caring roles and perhaps mourn the loss of roles they once played in the other’s life.
The lockdown surrounding Covid19 means that we are all simultaneously becoming the carers of those experiencing new disabilities, whilst acquiring disabilities ourselves. In our homes, amongst those we work with, in our streets, on social media, we are trying to support one another in finding ways to make sense of our new situation and simply to survive. This role is new and bewildering to all of us, even if we have been carers for many years, the number of people for whom we are now caring has increased dramatically. How are we supposed to manage this? Are you surprised that sometimes you feel fatigued or overwhelmed?
Then comes the “in an unfamiliar society” aspect of this challenge. In many ways learning to live under lockdown has been like moving abroad. Whilst in this instance the language hasn’t changed the customs have. People queue differently; shop at different intervals; socialise differently; behave oddly in the streets; decorate windows and hide stones to convey messages; there is ritual clapping/noise-making and a suspicion of people sitting on benches… You get the idea.
Each of these life events: acquiring a disability; becoming a carer; moving abroad is momentous and life-changing. No-one would expect to sail through any one of these with no wobbly days and no support. We’re managing all three at once. That’s before we even begin to think about the impact of illness, death and the many other challenges each individual was carrying before lockdown occurred and continues to face, sometimes exacerbated by, the current situation. So how do we look after ourselves at this time?
In the second week of St Luke’s Hospital’s Virtual Clergy Well-Being Programme, Kate Wiebe states:
“one of the most important practices for becoming restored… is to begin to implement nourishing routines, even if only in very small ways, as soon as possible. Without forcing or rushing, but rather incorporating them a step at a time, sooner rather than later.”
As a Scottish Episcopal Priest, I believe that the many ways in which the churches have attempted to provide worshipping opportunities for God’s people at this time is in large part about helping them to maintain one stable point, one nourishing routine in a time of constant fracture and change. The ways in which we have attempted to do this have been debated endlessly on social media, with the Eucharist becoming a key area of dispute. Why should this be?
I will limit myself here, to an SEC perspective, although I’m sure those of other churches will be able to draw their own parallels. Our usual practise is to offer the Eucharist at least weekly, as the main act of worship. This is done in many and varied ways influenced by differing theologies and musical styles but grounded in the liturgy of the Scottish Prayer Book or the 1970/1982 Orders for Holy Communion.
When lockdown began, therefore, the most consistent thing to do was to offer the Eucharist (at least weekly) an unchanging point in a changing world. The province provided such a service on-line and asked its priests to celebrate the Eucharist alone in their churches (or at home depending on travel) to keep the practise of the sacrament going. Many SEC churches chose to livestream their own celebrations of the Eucharist for their congregations.
Partly because I wasn’t keen to video myself and partly because wifi access is difficult in our church, I didn’t begin to stream our own services at the beginning. Instead I provided daily Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies with music and pointed people towards the provincial Eucharist-cast. Last Sunday, by popular demand, we held our first ZOOM service, but it was not a Eucharist. This was not my theological decision, but a response to those who had said they would participate depending on the kind of service offered. I had begun making phone-calls to discover whether this was the usual SBCP/1982 divide but found overwhelmingly that people did not want to watch one person take communion whilst they were not able to do so, arguing that Communion is “supposed to be a shared meal”.
The response that, Communion is supposed to be a shared meal, set my thinking off in a number of different directions. On the one hand, yes Communion absolutely is a shared meal, I can quite understand people’s discomfort with the current practise, if they think of the sharing being predominantly that which occurs within the building amongst their local community. Simultaneously, Holy Communion is an Act of Worship joining Earth and Heaven together, where the angels, archangels and those already in God’s direct presence (who have no need of sacraments) are worshipping with the earthbound, incarnate amongst us who need outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual realities. If the angels are part of this worship, without receiving the sacrament, cannot those participating via video-link also commune spiritually by prayer?
I suppose the question then is what is the purpose of the priest consecrating and receiving the sacrament? As ever, the priest is a visible representation of the priesthood of the whole community of believers, making this visible when consecrating the bread and wine, allowing Jesus to be seen living in them (as he does in each and every believer) whilst re-enacting the last supper. And here lies the crux of the issue that re-enactment is named in English, following the latin ‘remembering’:
Do this in remembrance of me.
In Body and Society issue 12 Rafael Narvaez notes in his article, “Embodiment, Collective Memory and Time”:
The word “remember”… comes from the Latin re (to pass back through) and memor (mindful, mind): remember means passing a segment of time back through the mind. Logical as this seems, it is not, however, the only alternative. In Spanish Recordar (re-cordis) means passing a segment of time back through the heart. Implied here is a suturing (Sanskrit sutra: string and memory aid), sensuous in nature, that ties me to an otherwise loose past.
John Swinton in “Becoming friends of Time, helpfully links this with Thomas Fuch’s observation that:
Memory comprises not only one’s explicit recollections of the past but also the acquired dispositions, skills and habits that implicitly influence one’s present experience and behaviour… Body memory occurs when through repetition and exercise, a habit has developped. Long-trained patterns of movement and perception have been embodied as skills or faculties… speaking, reading…”
If we were the minds encased in bodies of the enlightenment Do this in remembrance of me, would mean: perform this ritual in order to pass the moment of Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice through your mind that you may understand how you are saved, how you are now part of Christ’s body and therefore a priest linked to every other person in Christ’s body.
We are not encased minds, however, we are ensouled bodies. We are still learning how much our guts are used as processing power for our mind, especially when the brain experiences damage. I believe that most of us do not pass the moment of Jesus’ sacrifice death and resurrection through our minds, comprehending it at communion. Rather, by participating in this long-trained ritual that segment of time is passed through our heart, blessing us in some way we do not comprehend, working on us body and soul.
This passing through the heart, accessed through bodily ritual is also why live-streamed Eucharists don’t connect with many people. The live-streamed format is a disembodied experience. It brings our newly acquired disability to the fore-font of our minds, reminds us we are living in a strange land and heightens the awareness we have of our isolation and inability to communicate – literally we are unable to communicate.
I’m not surprised that so many people with recognised disabilities within the church have responded – “Welcome to our World, perhaps now you’ll understand”. This will be important learning to carry into the future. For the moment, however, conversations are ranging from the validity of remote consecration, lay celebration, the role of Agape meals to:
At the beginning of this article, I was highlighting our current experience as being one of freshly acquired disability. I suspect those of us who have not been housebound previously, would still be in hospital at present having had our movement restricted , our agency limited and our ability to communicate with others as we usually do affected only a month or so ago.
Offering the Eucharist remotely at present is like trying to feed a roast dinner to a patient whose mouth has been wired together. We’re doing it because we know it’s comfort food. We know it’s something they like. We know it’s nourishing, but we have failed to recognise that at present the patient is nil-by-mouth. Feeding them, as if nothing has changed, will be painful and frustrating for all involved. How do we then “begin to implement nourishing routines [in our churches], even if only in very small ways”?
In his soon to be published book on disability theology and the church, Brian Brock uses the helpful image of ‘Philip Churches’, reflecting on the passage in Acts where:
an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
Without wishing to steal any of Brian’s thunder, Philip Churches are essentially: willing to foolishly run alongside the chariot (of one whose disability – being a eunuch – would preclude him from priesthood under Mosaic Law) until invited in, beginning where the questions are being asked.
For us in this moment, following Philip’s example will mean getting to know how our congregations are doing and what will most help them to be nourished in their relationships with God, with one another and the whole of creation. The answers won’t be the same for every person in every place. We won’t be able to tend every patient ourselves, sometimes we will need to signpost someone to a priest who is offering just what they need, when we don’t have the capacity for that.
We can however, be led by our people, remembering that we are here to accompany them, at their speed, helping them to enter into the presence of God wherever they are.
We know the importance of place and physicality. My non-verbal son has been a determined communicant since the age of two, but is never interested in home communion – it only makes sense to him in church. That may be the same for many of us.
One lady with dementia who receives communion in her home, with her daughter, remembers some parts of the service to join in, but never recognises the host, showing no desire to eat it. We let her have a sip of the wine, she smiles reaches out for the host, consumes it and then takes the wine again. She needs the taste of communion wine to help her piece together what we are doing.
Some can only worship whilst singing or playing the organ. Some with only one specific set of words and movements, whilst others need variety to hold their interest.
Sometimes we’ll help people to be aware of God’s presence this with words, sometimes with music, sometimes with food or flowers left on a doorstep. Sometimes with beautiful liturgies and sometimes with clunky Zoom coffee mornings. Sometimes we’ll do it by modelling how much we need to slow down; how we are not trying to pretend nothing has changed.
Recovery is going to take some time. The longing we feel for the Eucharist is good pain, it will draw us back together again. For now it reminds us that all is not well, so we need to treat one another kindly and with compassion.
I really hope that this will open up some conversations. I know that there are many Christians who, due to disabilities of various kinds, have been unable to receive the Eucharist for years, yet have deep, sustaining relationships with God.
I am also aware that there are people for whom the live-streamed Eucharists are providing that much needed consistent spiritual link – I’m not wishing to discourage those who are providing this service.
I do believe that those usually labelled ‘disabled’ are the natives of the land we currently find ourselves living in. We need to learn the culture and not to forget this culture’s existence should something resembling that which we left return.