Life after lockdown

‘Dazzlingly diverse and at times infuriating – going to church is what I’ve missed most during lockdown’

It might seem a bit unusual for a millennial to cop up to being a Christian, says Helen Coffey, but having a Church family is unlike anything else

Sunday 14 June 2020 07:45
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Ever since the UK government imposed a coronavirus lockdown, many of us have been surprised to discover that it’s the little things – not the extravagant or the particularly earth-shattering – that we’ve missed the most. The Independent lifestyle desk’s new essay series, Life After Lockdown, is an ode to everything we took for granted in the pre-Covid world – and the things we can’t wait to do once again when normality eventually resumes.

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I’ve inadvertently found a new hobby during lockdown: I spend every Sunday night staring at my computer in tears.

It’s not my intention to cry. I haven’t turned to some new form of therapy in these times of crisis that requires me to “let it all out” via my eyeballs. But it can’t be helped: a familiar face pops up on the screen, says a few words, and I find myself blubbering like a baby.

I don’t sob when I see my friends over video call; I don’t weep when I ring my mum; I don’t even lose it when I Zoom with my little nieces, aged one and four, and clock their gummy smiles and chubby limbs that, by rights, should be flung around me in a cuddle right now. Yet for some reason, every Sunday night at “church” – the new livestreamed, digital version I attend from my bedroom – I cannot contain my emotion. It just comes pouring straight out of my tear ducts like a burst pipe.

It might seem a bit unusual for a millennial to cop up to being a Christian – and a practising one at that – in these days of secularism. It’s often a talking point with new acquaintances: “you really go to church? Like, every Sunday?” I’m not in the least offended by the curiosity or tone of surprise, but the unfamiliarity of religion for many means it’s hard to communicate just what an important community church can be for those of us who do subscribe to the whole God thing.

The relationship is distinct from friendship, for a start. Of course, there are plenty of friendships that grow out of it, deep, abiding friendships that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. But there’s a reason you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as someone’s “church family”; a reason the cringe-sounding term “brothers and sisters in Christ” gets batted around. It’s because a family is what the often ragtag bunch of individuals that make up a congregation most closely resembles – with all the dysfunction that entails.

There’s the church equivalent of your mad uncle, who you’re always vaguely worried you’ll get stuck talking to by the refreshment table; there’s the incarnation of your brother’s overly earnest new girlfriend, who keeps banging on about why she’s boycotting Whatsapp until you want to rip your own ears off; and then there’s the calming presence who is most like a wise older sibling, the one who tells you to breathe deep and let it all wash over you.

But it’s not just this last person in the line-up that you appreciate. You don’t love your church family in spite of the people who occasionally rub you up the wrong way. You genuinely love it because of those people. You’d never have met them otherwise. Never have got to know them. Never have come to accept and, well, even embrace their quirks. Never have become an infinitesimally better person just by learning to love someone you don’t always like.

Singing weedily along to the hymns and songs alone in my room, when I remember being enveloped in a cacophony of rich, joyful harmony, leaves me flat

That’s why it’s like a family: you love them even when you hate them. And you know, deep in your bones, that those who are far from being kindred spirits have likewise learned to appreciate you, too. They’ve got your back in an unspoken, unparalleled way; they’re not expecting you to be anyone but yourself. And that’s the most reassuring feeling of acceptance imaginable.

I didn’t quite realise the magic of this mish-mash of bonds before lockdown started. As everyone quickly became aware after life transformed into something unrecognisable, there’s so much we used to take for granted. Church was just something I did on a Sunday night, unthinkingly, unappreciatively. It was only once I couldn’t sit in a room with those people, sing with them, pray with them, laugh with them after the service – only once everything was stripped away and I felt a gnawing hole in my gut – that I started to fully understand the scope of those relationships. And so I cry on Sundays now.

The technology is stellar, and allows a service leader, musician and the vicar to lead the whole shebang from their respective homes, livestreamed on Facebook via Zoom. It’s incredible how quickly we’ve all adapted and moved online. But seeing a close friend opening the service with a funny story and knowing she can’t see me catch her eye and laugh, hollows me out. Singing weedily along to the hymns and songs alone in my room, when I remember being enveloped in a cacophony of rich, joyful harmony, leaves me flat. At some point it all becomes too much – perhaps simply acting as a cathartic outlet for all the emotions provoked by this overwhelming Brave New World – and I feel my cheeks get damp once again.

Churches in the UK have been shut since lockdown began on 23 March, with all baptisms and weddings also cancelled. Although Boris Johnson announced that churches would be allowed to open for private worship from 15 June, they may not be operating “normally” again until next year, the Rt Rev Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London, has warned. Even when they do reopen more fully, there are likely to be prohibitive new rules around communion and singing, both high-risk activities when it comes to spreading the virus. This is as it should be – protecting our communities is more important than anything else right now, and rushing to reopen would be utter madness. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.

There are so many things to look forward to once lockdown is properly over: long, lazy brunches with good friends; the burst of delight in picking up my niece and swinging her around in the park; the tingle of anticipation as the curtain lifts at the theatre and you see the stage. I can’t wait for it, all of it.

They’ve got your back in an unspoken, unparalleled way; they’re not expecting you to be anyone but yourself

But the thing I can’t wait for most is that first “normal” service back with my church family, in all their dazzlingly diverse, brilliant (and very occasionally infuriating) glory. That first time I step inside the building – which feels so much more than just a building – and catch each eye, and grin, and maybe even hug. The first time we lift our voices high, so high the music swells up and bursts out of the doors and onto the street, for all to hear. Because we are here, and we are alive, and we have missed each other desperately and been missed in return.

So much so that, when I inevitably get stuck talking to the “mad uncle” by the refreshment table afterwards, I will simply listen and smile – and thank God we are finally all together again.

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