Fr Rob Marshall, School Chaplain, reflects on a bizarre few weeks of ministry
A lot of people still have an old fashioned idea of what a priest does. All the old jokes - "you only work on Sundays" and "it's just a matter of giving the odd sermon" couldn't of course be further from the truth. But during the recent lockdown, as in every profession, clergy and faith leaders from many different faiths have had to overcome previously unheard of challenges, one after the other.
As mosques, temples and synagogues also closed - thousands of British churches were told to shut their doors immediately. It was such a strange experience. "Do it online," we were told. On March 15th I had never even heard of Zoom still less hosted a Facebook Premier and I wasn't at all up to date with what licences were needed to stream music on, which others relied for their livelihood. And so the steep learning curve began.
Then the sickness started to affect people and, for the first time for a long time, I had to take four funerals in the space of just over a week. At each of the services there would have been many more present than the ten people who were allowed to be there. But I noticed at the first burial I did early in March that other relatives and friends of a deceased person were often "around", hiding on one occasion behind grave stones and even sitting in their cars - just so they could pay their respects. On another occasion three hundred people socially distanced along an avenue to pay their final respects. It was an incredible moment to drive in a funeral procession.
There were police cars at the crematorium - checking that social distancing rules were maintained and huge pressure on funeral and cemetery staff who suddenly, as I have already said, were dealing with unknown after unknown. We should pay tribute to these often hidden professionals.
For many years now I have been presenting Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. It's always exciting to go LIVE into the studio on the Saturdays I am broadcasting and meet the presenters and backroom team. Suddenly, with even the presenters broadcasting to the Today audiences of more than 6m from their back bedroom or garage it was strange for me also to be in my study at home reading out my script in a very different context.
As I write this piece, wishing all the boys, teachers, other staff and parents every blessing as the "official" summer break approaches, the atmosphere is changing. The Premier League is about to restart. Horse racing has already restarted. The pubs are about to open as are restaurants and dental surgeries and all those independent retailers will once again be able to try to open their doors. I know many parents fall into these categories to earn their living. I wish you all the best.
And all of this on the condition that should a second wave of this damned and indiscriminate virus strike us again - we will have to respond quickly and, then with knowledge, to prevent further deaths and ensure the safety of our loved ones: particularly the elderly and those who survived the devastating impact on care homes.
People have been talking for some time about the "new normal" and when it arrives. The new normal will be something more like what normal life used to be like before the lockdown but it will be new because it will not quite be the same.
And, do you know, as a quintessentially positive person, there have been certain aspects of what I have learnt through the journey of the pandemic in British and global society that, I hope, will remain part of the new normal - and they are basically these:
+ more time to reflect and to "be" [whatever that means to you]
+ more engagement with those whom we love and time spent with them [not always easy, I know]
+ a greater appreciation of the arts and how I need to support them more into the future
+ an appreciation of the gift of life having seen so many families affected by Covid-19 and to accept each day as a new gift [for me, from God] and not to waste it.
I am aware that for many boys the ending of the School Year 2019-2020 was not what they expected. They have been constantly in my thoughts and prayers. It has been tough and at times frustrating. But their unique school journey has also become part of the social history of the nation and it will certainly be something for them to tell their children and grandchildren - that they lived through this unprecedented time of uncertainty in our nation and gleaned new insights into life and living in extraordinary times.
These lessons will partly frame our approach to life here on in, as life hopefully returns to something more recognisable to us, but try to remember, that not everything about the new normal will be inferior to what we always took for granted in the past. Indeed some of the better outcomes of our recent shared experience may even frame our priorities as we move onwards now in confidence.
Revd Dr Rob Marshall