Saturday 13 June 2020

Sermon on the Feast of Corpus Christi in a time of coronavirus

A Virtual Service for Corpus Christi in the Diocese of Cape Town, June 11, 2020

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

1 Corinthians 10: 16-17; Psalm 146

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to these midday prayers on this wonderful Feast of Corpus Christi. Thank you to the Vicar-General, Father Keith, for convening us, and to the Liturgy Team for developing the form of service for us. Thank you, Archdeacon Mark, and all the readers.

Today we gather online to give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist, the Sacrament in which Christ is made real among us, in which we identify ourselves with Christ's obedience to God and in which we find fellowship with another and are then sent out into the world to be God's instruments of love.

It goes without saying that it is a strange time in which to be commemorating the institution of the Lord's Supper, a time – unprecedented in the last 100 years – when we can't gather together physically to do so because of a pandemic. For Anglicans, it is especially disconcerting, since for us, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, ”the Church is most truly itself when it is engaged in sacramental worship; that when above all it meets for the Eucharist, it… expresses its deepest identity.”

But when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are not doing it as an act in itself – we are doing it in remembrance of Christ, who was sent by God to feed, nurture and strengthen us for service, and to assure us that we are part of God's design, part of the eternal dimension of the existence of all creation. Our hope, as the Psalm says, is in the Lord our God. Whether or not we are at the moment physically able, in Paul's words to the Christians of Corinth, to partake of the one bread, we are still one body in Christ. The unity of the body of Christ, the Church, remains.

Contemplating the Eucharist at this particular moment in our lives compels me to address the issue of when we will be able again to resume services in our church buildings. We value deeply the remarkable gifts for innovation that most of you, our clergy, and supportive lay people have been displaying with online services, readings, prayers, reflections, midday prayers, the Angelus and other ministries. You have done a magnificent job. But we all still look forward to the day when it is safe to go back to church.

We may be one body, but as Paul told the church in Rome, the body has a variety of parts and gifts. As I said in my Letter for Pentecost last week, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to re-opening for worship. I've just had morning prayers with the bishops this morning, and different dioceses have differing lockdown regimens, or face differing levels of infection. So each Diocese will have to adjust their approach according to the risk in their areas.

Most importantly, we as a Diocese through Chapter have chosen to demonstrate our solidarity by deciding that for as long as one church cannot re-open for worship, none will. That's a beautiful Pauline principle. Since those parishes with fewer material resources will find it more difficult to prepare for worship, this will encourage those with more resources to partner and share with others. I hope that parishes with the resources will indeed help others with, for example, such supplies as sanitisers, printed service sheets where people don't have their own Prayer Books, tape to enforce distancing inside churches and whatever else they need.

We need to be especially careful about the return to worship of parishioners and clergy who are over 60. Professor Karim, the chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, has warned church leaders that the death rate for COVID-19 patients between 60 and 70 is three times higher than for others, and the risk is particularly big if conditions such as diabetes and hypertension are not well managed. For those above 70 with pre-existing conditions, the risks of having COVID-19 are very high, and he says they should self-isolate and stay at home until a vaccine is found. This morning the Bishop of Grahamstown shared that three of his clergy have already died and three of his laity have died. Bishop Margaret shared that a deacon and a deacon's family as well as the wife of a priest are COVID positive, and we know that as a Diocese we are in what is called a hotspot.

I hope you are meeting with your Church Wardens and lay leaders in order to plan your return in detail. The SACC has issued detailed guidelines, drawn up by a group of national church leaders which I led, which you need to study to ensure that we meet all the requirements that need to be observed. We are still awaiting advice on the legal liability of parishes and dioceses should parishioners contract COVID-19 in church. Many parishes in the Province are designating Coronavirus Compliance Officers to ensure that safe conditions are met. In the meantime, I hope you are all managing to minister to your parishioners by phone, emails, WhatsApp and in other ways.

As many elements of the lockdown continue, it is important that we keep up hope for the future – but hope not as a paracetamol that will take away the headache of the coronavirus. Hope is rather about acknowledging our fears and dealing with the pain and uncertainty generated by the pandemic. Hope is the story of our salvation, our lives lived with the assurance that “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thess. 5:24) Let us commit to taking the journey of hope even as we work through the reality of COVID-19, however long it takes.

We give thanks to God that through his Word and, as we celebrate in particular today, his Sacrament, we are constantly nurtured, formed and sent out into the world to go and live out the justice, the peace and the unity Christ proclaims.

God bless you.

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