Monday, January 04, 2021

2020 in review

This is just my personal reflection on some of the themes that have characterised 2020 for me.  It's obviously been a big year.  A lot has changed.  I think mostly the extreme situation has put a spotlight on things that were already there, and has probably accelerated some cultural trends inside and outside the church.  I imagine different people will have picked up on different things; it has certainly been true that whilst we have all externally gone through the same situation this year, our actual experience of that situation has been very different indeed.

So here are the themes that I'm taking away to think about.

Safetyism

I'm guessing all of us as individuals tend to structure our ethical views around one or two dominant values.  The same is no doubt true of communities and societies.  The values which lie at the heart of our ethics flow out of, and probably also inform, the stories that we tell about the world, the examples that we admire, and the aspirations that we hold.  What 2020 has revealed - and I think it was already true - is that safety is the major value of our culture.  Safety is multi-dimensional and complex in the way that it gets applied.  It can mean 'safety in my identity', which is to say that I must be able to autonomously construct my sense of who I am without reference to, or critique or question from, anyone else.  By boiling it down to the most basic meaning - physical safety - I think 2020 has just shown how utterly dominant safety is in our thinking.  'Stay safe' has become the most common sign-off.  A life without risk seems to be the ideal.  I wonder how and when this particular vision of human flourishing gripped us?  Suffice to say, I find it stifling and grim.

The coercive power of the state

For me, 2020 represented my first real experience of the coercive power of the state.  I've never really wanted to do anything illegal in the past.  This year the state has intruded itself massively into family and community life, making both nigh on impossible.  The state has closed churches.  The state has criminalised normal social interactions.  It's all been quite a shock.  When I've attempted to raise concerns about this, I've often been shot down: the motives behind all this are good, it's about saving lives, etc.  Aside from the fact that some of this line of argument reflects the safetyism noted above, I do find it all a bit naive.  The point is that if the state can do this now, it can do it whenever.  There will always be an emergency to justify this.  And the more safety becomes our main value, the more justifiable it will seem.  And the minority who object will be painted as dangerous, and silenced.  Even if you think this lockdown has been justified - and I think some measures have been, but not all by a long shot - you ought to be concerned for liberty.  I really do call it naivety if you're not.

Church government questions

I've always been an independent in church government matters.  That is to say, I think Scripture lays down a normative scheme for the running of a church, by elders within a local church who are approved by and answerable to that local congregation.  In 2020, a number of things have made me rethink this.  The Timmis affair seems to demonstrate how easily a dominant personality can hold sway over an eldership and a congregation.  The lack of formal structures facilitated this dominance in this case.  If independency is broadly right - and I still think it is - how are we to mitigate the risk here?  I think stronger, and formal, links between congregations are going to be crucial.  I think we probably need to build up proper local associations.  Pastors from different churches should feel like colleagues.  Coupled to this concern, the pandemic has raised questions of who is authorised to represent the churches at a regional or national level.  I've regularly felt more in line with Presbyterians and even Roman Catholics than those who have been speaking for Independent churches.  It is probably the nature of our very loose groupings - held together only by a wafer thin confession of basic evangelical truths - that we would struggle to put forward anyone who could speak for the whole slate.  What's to be done?  Not sure on this one at this stage!

Being physical

The experience of trying to do church on Zoom has been miserable.  I hate it.  I know most people hate Zoom, but it's more than just the extremely negative experience.  It's that it doesn't work.  Worship and community are physical things.  The sacraments prove that.  And the sacraments are not incidental to Christian worship but central and vital.  (Incidentally, I wrote a thing early in the pandemic arguing for the possibility of online communion.  I think that piece was theologically correct and would stand by it, and yet we only attempted it once.  Why?  Because as I said then, this could never be normative; only, in a sense, parasitical on our real physical gatherings.  And so I judged it to be unwise to get used to doing it this way).  I've been thinking that for evangelicals we've been so used to thinking of the faith as something that happens mostly in the mind - at the level of ideas and worldviews and doctrines - or perhaps in the heart - at the level of desires and affections - that we have forgotten that it is also something that involves the body.  To sit, to stand, to sing, to deliver the amen, to light candles, to lift hands, to eat and drink, to hug...  All this is not incidental but integral to worship, because the body is integral to human being.  I also wonder how much we depend on a model of discipleship that is 100% top down - i.e., from the head/thinking - when bodily actions and physical habits are just as capable of adjusting our thinking as vice versa.  To put it another way: having a correct eucharistic doctrine is important for shaping your faith, but taking the eucharist is much more important.

Against the tide

I've never personally felt more out of step with the generality of society than I have in 2020.  No doubt some of that is just down to me being an awkward so-and-so, and probably in a good deal of it I'm wrong.  That's okay.  I've tried not to let my personal dismay at everything overflow too much into my ministry, but it has made me think: shouldn't I feel like this more often?  The crisis of the year has made me examine things like my beliefs about death, and the potential for idolatry in my life, in a way that I don't normally have to do.  When I thought about it, I found I didn't agree with the world around me (or much of the church); but how often do I think about it?  I suspect I go with the flow much more than I should.

Perspectives

When the dust settles on this crisis, we will all have had really different experiences.  One of the things I keep having to remind myself is that my experience of this year - having known nobody first-hand who has been seriously ill with Covid, let alone died, and very few people second-hand - is very different from those who are grieving losses.  My view is inevitably different from that of a doctor slogging away in terrible conditions.  How we deal with those differences is going to be important.  The culture in general tends to prioritise experience over objectivity; but I know that my reaction to that can be to prioritise the abstract over the personal.  Neither is helpful.  Integration will have to happen, and hopefully some of that will occur as we swap stories in the pub or cafe over the summer.

Perseverance

At various points in the year I've had useful chats with people who have pointed out that quite often the goal of the Christian life according to the NT is just to keep going.  Endure.  Persevere to the end.  That's it.  It's not a grand project, which is good because all our grand projects rather fell apart this year.  If we can keep going, keep trusting, keep our eyes up on the Lord Jesus: that's enough.  That's everything!  The whole ball game, as I believe they say.  And most of us are still on the race track, still headed to the finish line.  And that will do.  Thank you, Jesus.

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