Every Sunday we are praying that ‘… through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again.’
We are, more or less, half way through Lent, and if we are to take that prayer seriously, we live in the hope that this is indeed a time of growth and learning. But what are we learning?
This year, more than before, it has struck me that this is a time when the disconnect between a church with a deep commitment to the liturgical seasons and the communities in which we live is profoundly evident. We have become used to a conversation about the changing character of Advent: there are laments for the lost solemnity of the weeks of preparation for Christmas, and the way in which the season of celebration seems to move earlier and earlier. The focus of those weeks, though, is shared by regular churchgoers, occasional attenders, and those way beyond the church walls: all are getting ready for one particular occasion, still largely shaped by one particular story.
Easter, the great destination of our Lenten pilgrimage, has far less traction on our culture. True, in the shops there are Easter eggs and a plentiful supply of decorations for cards and cakes involving spring flowers and fluffy chicks, and the shadow of an older Lent survives in occasional conversations about ‘giving something up’, but these weeks do not have a single point of reference in the way that December will.
Against that background, we endeavour to sustain a distinctive character to these forty days. Like any worthwhile pilgrimage, this is not an easy one, and as always, I am struggling to hold on to the possibilities of the season. Our usual practice, like many another parish, is to provide more ‘church’: discussion groups, additional services, times of prayer, all good in themselves. The other demands on time and attention from those beyond our church communities do not stop, however, and if we seek to withdraw from them we are in danger of creating new barriers between church and not church, losing sight of the image of God in the many for whom Lent has little meaning, while nurturing the few(er) for whom it is a profound experience.
Maybe, though, those beyond our churches who still speak of ‘giving something up’ have preserved a profound truth that we, within the churches with our Lenten encouragement to ‘taking something up’, have missed. Maybe we should be listening to those voices, and recognise that the time has come to return to that older practice. As we very slowly and unwillingly begin to understand the need to limit our demands on the earth, as we count the practical and emotional cost of constant connectivity, perhaps we can offer and model the long Christian tradition of abstinence, of learning to flourish through restraint and self-denial; for our time, our place, that perhaps would be being salt and light, a way of becoming ‘your people once again’.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.