MAGAZINE: Catechesis in a time of epidemic

MAGAZINE: Catechesis in a time of epidemic

From the Curate’s House. Iffley Parish Magazine, May 2020

All of us are finding that many of our well-made plans for this year have already become impossible to carry out. Holidays, projects, and celebrations are being put on hold. We are fast learning what St James tried to teach us two millennia ago: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ … Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’”

Nonetheless, modern technology means many things are able to continue that would have been impossibly if a lockdown had happened only decades ago. Many are able to work from home. Family members stay in touch by video call. And as described elsewhere in this magazine, church services are continuing online.

Before the epidemic, we made plans to have a confirmation service for those youth and adults at St Mary’s who wish to be confirmed. This is a step that traditionally follows a period of learning about the basics of the Christian faith. I am now meeting with our young people through video conference to prepare them for confirmation. At the same time, we are working with adults to discover what preparing for confirmation might look like for them.

We had also planned to organise a new basics course on Christianity in the autumn which would be open to complete beginners and enquirers, or those wanting to brush up on their knowledge. We now have to wait and see whether that too will have to be postponed – but please do get in touch if you’re interested or know someone who might be.

In these strange times, it may be sobering to look towards the past and realise that the world has been here before. From the point of view of the church, many Christians in the first centuries did not have church buildings. Instead those who were able opened their homes for others to gather in. During the present crisis, we are all asked to worship from home and for those who are able to broadcast readings and prayers from their homes as part of our shared service.

The ancient world knew of several devastating pandemics, the worst of which may have killed more than a quarter of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire. We might not have lived in a world shaped by Christian values today had Christians not acted decisively during those times.

Today telephones, Skype, and Zoom makes it possible to connect with people from a safe distance. In a time long before that, Christians would go and care for ailing neighbours who had been left for dead by their pagan families. Despite exposing themselves to risk in this way, Christians kept their spirits up, and there is some evidence that they survived the plagues at a higher rate than others. (Later it was Christians who set up the first hospitals where those with infectious illnesses could be cared for with minimal risk to others.)

Naturally this selfless way of life provoked the interest of many, and so Christians in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century kept instructing new converts in the tenets and practices of the Christian faith. Despite their humanitarian attitude, Christians had been persecuted and many had been forced to renounce their faith. It became important that new believers were given a solid foundation so they wouldn’t crumble under pressure.

Instructors known as catechists would meet regularly with new believers to teach them about the Scriptures. In some places enquirers had to receive multiple years’ worth of daily instruction before they could be baptised and admitted as a full member of the Christian community. In the modern world, we are not under nearly the same pressures, and we can proceed to baptism and confirmation with less demanding requirements. Nonetheless, the decline in general knowledge about the Bible and the Christian faith is rightly recognised as one of the top challenges faced by today’s church.

As we continue to pray for those who are at risk of catching the virus, to reach out to those who are lonely and in need, and to comfort those who are mourning, let us also hold out hope that even this cloud has a silver lining: that somehow our priorities and our character will be clarified and strengthened by going through this challenge. Stay well – and see you on the other side!

Nikolaj Christensen

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