What happened to Sundays?

My earliest memories of Sundays were when dad came to pick us up and took us out for the day. Sometimes a picnic, sometimes back to his house to play with my half-sisters. It was always a treat day for me, which involved sweeties and pocket-money (perhaps the real reason I enjoyed them so much.)

Some childhood Sundays were long lie-ins, late brunch (but we never called it that back then) and lying on the floor watching black and white movies. Mum would do the ironing for back to school the next day and we would have a bath, wash our hair, and dry it by lying next to the electric fire. This explains the bad hair days I had in all those photographs of my childhood.

As I got older Sundays were mostly hungover days and were days of rest, reading and watching bad TV, except for those old movies. Sometimes I don’t think I even got dressed.

When I was first married and had the boys, long lies were out of the question and some shops started to trade on a Sunday. Often we would walk down to John Menzies on Princes Street which was a big book store and browse for hours before buying a paperback or more.

But I was always a night person – an owl rather than a lark. Sunday mornings were meant for sleep and dozing and breakfast in bed if at all possible.

Then I found Church and it all changed. Overnight I became a lark. Up and dressed and raring to go across the road to church as the bell tolled and people from miles around gathered together. I never missed a Sunday except for one occasion when I was very ill. And what I did on Sundays at church spread out into my life and happened on other days too, and in evenings and in groups and in pubs. I loved the structure of Sunday and over time it changed – sometimes pub after for lunch, sometimes going on to someone’s house to laugh and talk theology and drink, sometimes back for Evensnog and Benediction, sometimes going out with church friends.

When I was ordained Sundays changed again. There were early services to attend or take, main services and clearing up to do after, coffee to share and home communions to take out to the housebound. It always began with Radio 4 and sometimes a bit of The Archers as I drove between one church and another. Sundays then became quite tiring days as I’d slump in the afternoon when I got home. Tiring in the afternoon because there was such a buzz in the morning. Sometimes a wee nana-nap had to be taken if there was an evening service to do. At this church the routine was church at 10am then coffee and a blether which could go on for some considerable time, and then the Lunch Bunch (single folk who live alone) would head off to The Steading for lunch which could go on till almost 4pm by the time we have sorted the world’s problems out. It was great. Social and pastoral and theology and mission all rolled in to one.

And then there is now. One week coffee after church was stopped because of the risk, and the next the church was closed.  And that was a couple of months ago. Oh how I miss it all. I miss the Eucharist most of all. But I also miss the people so much. I miss the conversations about nothing in particular. Yes, I do have conversations by phone now but they mostly consist of coronavirus talk and health. I miss the visuals we created in church to mark the liturgical year. I miss the laughter. I miss preaching to people I can see. I miss the music – oh how I miss that! I am missing my 50 days of unremitting joy. Holy Week was just agony but for all the wrong reasons. Easter Sunday was painful because we were to have an adult baptism as well as all the rest of the razzamatazz.  Yes, every week I sit down at 10am and I go through our spirit communion service. I read the readings and I try to contemplate them as best I can. I pray for those who are sick and I pray for all the others who are affected in different ways. I don’t do anything online as so few of my congregation could access it easily, and I feel it would be excluding them if I did it for some. Of course, there is plenty of religion to be found. I could join Zoom churches aplenty, there are Provincial services, friends’ services from cathedrals to small churches like mine. At the beginning I watched them all: the good and the not-so-good. But I’m afraid they are just not doing it for me. I just don’t feel part of it without my own little flock.

When will it go back to how it was before? Should it go back to how it was before? What will the ‘new normal’ be like? I don’t know and I can’t even imagine. With the age profile of my congregation I know they would mostly like it to be exactly as it was before. They want Sundays back just like its aye been. And you know, I want that too. Just now I really, really want my Sundays to be just like they were before all this happened. Yes, its made me more aware of my housebound folk and how we can do more for them and that will continue. But right now I am mourning the loss of my Sundays and all they contained.

Why Sunday Is one of the most Essential Day of the Week for Your ...

A day for thinking about death

Today is Good Friday and the year is 2020. There will never be another Good Friday like this. I hope. Our churches are closed because of the Coronavirus and we are all trying to find ways of keeping the Triduum at home. Some have created prayer spaces with symbols that mean something, some have watched a hundred videos on Facebook and YouTube and some clergy have felt inadequate at the expertise of others. Why didn’t I learn all this IT stuff before the lockdown began? Why didn’t I prepare better? And if someone said that to me I would tell them that doing your best is just fine. But today I’m not hearing it. Today I’m grumpy, and in a bad mood, and I’m missing my Good Friday.

From the first year that I became a Christian Holy Week has been so very special for me. The sights, the sounds, the smells all take me to that place far, far away and long, long ago. Since being ordained I have tried faithfully to share some of that life-changing week with my little flocks. Through Stations of the Cross, art, fasting, meditations, candlelit Compline, preaching the Passion, the Veneration of the Cross, foot-washing, shared meals, prostrating at the Garden of Repose, and the joy of Holy Saturday and cleaning the church and preparing it for Easter Day. I love Holy Week. Yes, it makes me cry. But after the tears come Hot Cross Buns. And you know you have to go through the agony to appreciate the joy of Easter.

Today I’ve been thinking about death. My own death. I am ‘shielding’ at the moment which is the strictest kind of self-isolation for those who have an illness that puts them at high risk of catching the virus. Some people have one illness which puts them at risk. I have a few! I have COPD (lung disease) and Asthma, Diabetes, Liver disease, and I’m on steroids which lower my immune system. So I am being very careful indeed about staying indoors and washing everything over and over again. But there is still a chance I could catch it – when I’m at the doctor’s for blood tests, or at the hospital as I was on Monday. And I know that if I do get Coronavirus I might not survive it. For once I’m not being dramatic, for this is my reality. Usually I am a glass half-full kind of person but today I’m not. Because today, Good Friday, is a day for thinking about death and I can’t help but think of my own.

Many years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I led an evening on Preparing Your Own Funeral and I’ve repeated them time and time again. It is a subject I am passionate about. I’ve met families who have not even considered that their parent or loved one might die and are totally unprepared for thinking about hymns or burial or cremation or what readings or any of the questions a priest might ask the next of kin. Prepare your own before you go! I’d shout. And people did. And I did. And I told my son where to find it. And I showed him where all my papers are. I could relax. All was in hand.

But things have changed. My hope for a full Requiem with clergy in black vestments and twelve favourite hymns just won’t happen if I should die while restrictions are in place. It may be my boys and a priest at the Crem. It may be short and, I’m sure, sweet but nothing as I’d planned and hoped. And that’s okay. To be honest, I think my boys might prefer it that way.

Speaking to a friend this week who is also ‘shielding’ she told me her GP had phoned to check that she was taking all the instructions seriously to the letter, and did anyone have Power of Attorney, and did she want a DNR put in place. She was shocked and upset. She hadn’t thought about that. And I haven’t either. I know I hope for a good death, a happy death but I also know that not everyone gets that. My mother didn’t. My father didn’t. I don’t want to be resuscitated if there’s no hope. But I haven’t done anything about that yet. I don’t want to die alone or with a stranger holding my hand in their gloved one. I’m not frightened of dying but I am frightened of the physical aspects of it and the emotional ones. Then I listen to the Passion story again and again and wonder why I’m afraid and feel rather silly.

So that’s where I am this Good Friday. I know it will pass. But this is where I am today. Thinking, probably over-thinking, about death. It has been a struggle this Holy Week. I pray that Easter will make it better.

An Ash Wednesday story

Last week, on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, I went to visit D. I was taking her communion at home because she has been housebound since October when she had a fall. She can now walk around the house and back garden but she has lost her confidence in going out the front door. She has been waiting for months for a 3 wheel zimmer thingy but the wheels of the Social Care Dept seem to grind rather slowly. (Yes, I’ve written about her before and she still hasn’t had a bath or shower but is making do with a ‘dicht’.)

As it was Ash Wednesday I thought I’d take some ash along with me and use some of the liturgy we’d used in the morning. (Transporting ash is not easy, let me say, and I forgot the lemon.) We sat in her lounge looking out on to the garden where St Francis and a stork look down upon the pond. D is a third-order Franciscan, living a Franciscan way of life in her own home. She is eternally optimistic and never complains and I see St Francis in her every time we meet. After the service we spent some time in silence listening to the birds outside and then D said she wanted to get something. She came back with a bible and opened it up to the front cover. Then she took her thumb and rubbed it on her forehead and transferred the smudge of ash into the front page of her bible. There on the cream paper were rows of black and grey smudges from Ash Wednesdays past with the year underneath. One year there was a bit of paper stuck in with a smudge on it because D had been away that year but she didn’t want to miss it.

It was a beautiful sight, those rows of smudgy crosses. They represented all the prayers for repentance, the reminder of ashes of hopelessness. Remember child that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Some were quite dark, some barely visible. Thumbprints of ashes past.

I came home and did the same in my bible.

Quaking with the Quakers

So you have a Sunday off and where do you go to church? Always a tricky one for clergy. You want to go. You want to receive the Sacrament, if possible. You want to check out what your sisters and brothers are doing out there in the vineyard. One of the difficulties I have here is that I am next door to two parishes where I used to be Rector and it is rather frowned upon to ‘go back’. Especially as they have a new Rector this year. I used to go back to my home parish in Edinburgh but things change and at some point it doesn’t really feel like home again. And if I was a bit braver with driving then I would venture west and try out a certain cathedral there, but that day hasn’t come yet.

quaker-peace-gardenTo digress a moment, one of my little flock has just left us to go to the Quakers. She has always wanted to be a Quaker since she was a teenager and as she is now retired she feels that she can finally do that. (There were a host of other reasons why she couldn’t do it sooner.) We have given her our blessing and she returns once a month when she is on the coffee rota and keeps in touch with old friends. Over a coffee she was explaining to me the preparation process and I heard myself saying, “Can I come with you on Sunday then?” (Well that’s receiving the Sacrament done for, I thought.)

I should perhaps say at this point, that I have worked in the past with many Quakers. When I worked for the Rock Trust with young homeless people we always had a Quaker on our Management Team and they were great contributors. Renowned for their interest in Justice and Peace, I met many in the Voluntary Sector and always had great respect for them. I always intended going to a meeting one Sunday but it just never happened. (Of course, I do know that they do silence rather well and I am not exactly renowned for it.)

And off we set on Sunday morning to the local Quaker Meeting House, which happens to be in a local community centre. As it was the first Sunday in the month my friend told me that the meeting would be slightly different. There would be silence but there would also be a discussion after so there would be an opportunity to talk. However as the group gathered a young woman arrived with two very young children and announced that she was meant to be doing the discussion but hadn’t been able to get anything together so there wouldn’t be one. It was all very relaxed. (How different in our church, I thought. Imagine if I turned up at 10.30am and said I hadn’t had time to do the sermon… Round of applause, perhaps?) There was a low coffee table around which the chairs were set. On the table there were some books about Quakers or Quaker sayings which I was invited to read if the silence got too much. There was also a plant which I took to be the equivalent of an icon or cross – it was our focus for the meeting. We numbered about 9 plus the kids.

The meeting began with no announcement so I nearly missed it (and spoiled it because I was going to ask where the loo was) and suddenly Quakers praywe just lapsed into silence. I was kind of hoping that the Holy Spirit might encourage somebody to ‘witness’ or ‘minister’ or whatever it is they do but sadly She was very quiet herself that day. Some sat with eyes closes, some with eyes open. One man read almost everything on the table. Another woman clutched a small piece of paper with something written on it. The rest of us sat and tried to avoid eye contact. The elderly woman next to me got very quiet and then did some gentle snuffly snoring before going completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I took to checking she was still breathing. The others took it in turns to go and look after the children in the room next door. Near the end the new Evangelical church which also uses the community centre struck up with High Five for Jesus, or at least it sounded like that. It was very jolly. And loud.

An hour later, during which I may have dozed off myself and dreamt or was visited by the Holy Spirit who showed me some birds of prey (? I know, go figure) a woman shook hands with the person next to her and we all joined in and that was it over. (You only shake hands with the person next to you, not like the Peace and go trying it with folk opposite. Oh no.) A wee bit of an anti-climax, I have to say. And then it was coffee time. I expected lots of conversation and interest as to why I was visiting but no. Not one person spoke to me other than to offer me coffee (no decaff available. Who ever heard of Quakers with no decaff?). Now, as you know, I am used to being the centre of attention so it did not sit well with me to be so completely ignored. Perhaps it is not part of their ethos to welcome the stranger. Maybe they don’t do Mission. (How refreshing, not to have to worry about Mission… ) Anyhow, they chatted among themselves about Quakery things and local concerts and Christian Aid. And then we left.

Now one must not make generalisations after only one visit and with only one group… you sense a BUT here, don’t you? No, I shall resist. But I will say that I was surprised that the hour passed quicker than I thought. I did manage some prayer. My observations lead me to believe that most, if not all, Quakers are probably introverts. I missed all the trappings of church to look at : icons, statues, smell of incense, pictures, etc. I missed the liturgy. But I’m glad there are Quaker Meeting Houses for quiet people to go to. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask lots of questions, like Do you still quake before God or are you more on speaking terms now? Why is nobody wearing a stove-top hat? Why no sacraments? You could do them in silence, if you wanted. Why was your bible the Good News version and have you ever tried something better? (oooh, get her! I’d make a dreadful Quaker.) What’s with the silence anyway? Is it for prayer? Dialogue? Listening? Waiting? How often does the Holy Spirit lead you to speak up?

If you know the answers, please do comment below. I have bought a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice so one day I may get around to reading it myself.

1 star from this mystery worshipper. (If you’d spoken to me you’d have got a whole lot more.)

Walsingham bites back

You may remember, dear readers, that a wee while ago I was reminiscing on visits I have made to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Many people made some interesting and supportive comments. Today I received this comment from Fr Dominic:

I found all this very interesting and very one sided. The rant of M/s Ruth seems to ignore the hurt that she and her “ordained” friends have done to the English Church.As an Anglican priest I am expected to be polite to the priestess but she can be as rude and nasty as she likes to me. And I have experienced this at Walsingham. They see Walsingham as the last bastion that they must break into and are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this.

Let me make some comments here, in the open, in response.

Fr Dominic, you say it was one sided. Yes, indeed I gave my thoughts. There is one of me. The fact that many of the comments agreed with my opinion perhaps reflects the views of the majority in our Church. But thank you for offering another side.

You say that M/s Ruth (that’s me) ignores the hurt me and my ‘ordained’ friends have done to the English Church. Let me respond by saying that far from ignoring the hurt felt by those opposed to the ordination of women, I have been instrumental in bringing about dialogue in many places between the two ‘sides’. In fact, many people who were once opposed (and I include myself in that group) have got to know women priests and have come to accept their ministry. By putting the word ‘ordained’ in inverted commas I am presuming that you do not believe we are actually ordained. Do you not hold with the Canons of your Church then? Do you not believe that I was called by God to the priesthood? Did I imagine it? And please believe that I have not been near the ‘English’ Church. I am a Scottish Episcopalian, and proud of it.

Next, you say that you are expected to be polite to the priestess… Em, you do realise that using the term ‘priestess’ is not polite at all, don’t you? You can’t have it both ways. And as far as I am aware I have never met you and try not to be rude or nasty to any of God’s creatures.

Finally you say that we are trying to break into that last bastion – Walsingham. Did my wee comment indicate a siege mentality? It is interesting that you use the word ‘bastion’. I have always thought of it as a Shrine to Our Lady. Perhaps you are projecting your own images on to that holy place. I am not sure what you mean by ‘are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this’. Please believe that I have not pushed anyone, nor have I said a peep to the Shrine staff.

I shall continue to pray that one day, Fr Dominic, you and I may stand side by side and share in the presiding of the Holy Mysteries at the altar. Until then, I shall hold you in my prayers.

May St Francis, who recognised the value of women’s ministry in St Clare, pray for us all.