Emerging from New Zealand's lockdown
Updated: Sep 21
Encouragement comes from the other side of the globe as the Revd Robin Peirce shares her experience of lockdown in her rural parish of Rangitikei in New Zealand.
'That which is Christ-like within us shall be crucified. It shall suffer and be broken. And that which is Christ-like within us shall rise up. It shall love and create.' Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer, 1990
I am one of a team of four Anglican priests in a widely spread rural district of central New Zealand.
We have seven churches supporting mostly farming communities, the main one being in the town of Marton. Apart from presiding at Sunday services around the parish, my particular responsibility is for the midweek service of Holy Communion, which is attended by mostly elderly people who prefer the later time, a warm room in the hall with comfortable chairs and a sociable morning tea followed by study of scripture which generates full and lively discussion! My other responsibility is training the parish choir.
We were given three days to prepare for Level-4 lockdown at the end of March 2020. Priests, parish secretary, wardens and vestry members first worked on the parish and electoral rolls, separating town-dwellers, near and remote farming families, Anglicans in rest homes and those living alone. Armed with these lists, we shared them out between the priests so that we all had contact details for everyone in the parish. Our super secretary set up a central computer system that enabled us to enter notes every time we phoned someone. At this point, we realised that lockdown was going to be a fairly busy time for the church!
Then we made lockdown care packs for everyone. These contained a shortened Eucharist from the New Zealand Prayer Book, a booklet of daily prayers, another with our contact numbers and those of other agencies and a bag of consecrated wafers. We all drove long distances on 24 and 25 March, delivering all these packages and making sure we had visited anyone alone and vulnerable.
Many people were able to access online services, but a number do not have computers and broadband is very patchy in our region, much of which is rough hill country. They were all able to hold their own home church using the shorter form of Eucharist liturgy, and many of them reported that it was a profound spiritual experience for them, farming families in particular.
26 March was Day One of lockdown. After three days of frantic activity, the sudden stop was eerie. Summer gave way to a warm autumn with quiet roads, no aircraft from the air force base 20 kms away. The peace was sublime and the birds reclaimed the skies. Like many others, I enjoyed hours of piano practice, listening to Bach's St Matthew and St John Passions over Easter, reading and dealing with all the fruit ripening at the same time. While I thanked God for each quiet night and day, I knew how very blessed I was to live where I do, surrounded by trees and fields and hearing cattle calling to each other.
Twice a week, I spent about five hours on the phone, noticing as time went by, how the words, 'I'm fine, thank you', became a little more tremulous and anxious. To keep people's spirits up, I sent by email, prayers and poems, clips of choirs sent by the RSCM, and items of upbeat news. These had to be printed and delivered on long walks to those without computers. There was no shortage of exercise!
We were allowed a 'bubble' of close family and neighbours. Every Saturday, six of us met in a garden and, properly spaced at 2 metres, had a pleasant hour of morning tea and prayer.
My 'Rilona' amaryllis, which I thought had decided to sulk forever, suddenly grew and produced eight enormous red blooms. One parishioner heard that her cancer had disappeared. Warm weather continued, and so did swimming. Five big, beautiful wood pigeons took up residence in the lower branches of the kowhai tree, and we could hear bellbirds and owls in nearby woodland.
Thrown back on ourselves, prayer became a small do-it-yourself ceremony, our minds on their knees before our Creator.
Level 3 enabled us to hold home church with eight people for three weeks; and on 11 May, we were able to open the churches again. There is a heightened appreciation of community care now, and a noticeable difference in the way people reach out to each other while keeping to the social distancing rules.
Who would have thought that one day, caring for each other would mean keeping away from each other? That we would have Holy Week without church? Our rest homes remain closed and in phone contact only, but the Wednesday morning service has indeed 'risen up.'
We're still in Level 2, masking up and keeping our distance, using tracing apps and sign-in sheets wherever we go. Everything is open. We know how fortunate we are to be living here and our prayers go out to all the world where people are adversely affected by this terrible disease.
I end this as I began, with a prayer from Michael Leunig.
We pray for the fragile ecology of the heart and mind. The sense of meaning. So, finely assembled and balanced and so easily overturned. The careful, ongoing construction of love. As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth and as easily abandoned. Hard fought and won are the shifting sands of this sacred ground, this ecology. Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend, this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith, this precious order. This sanity. We shall be careful. With others and with ourselves. Amen
Robin has also written a psalm:
'AT MIDNIGHT ON 25TH MARCH.... LOCKDOWN PSALM'
The doors were closed. Everything stopped. But not time.
The roads were silent.
The birds reclaimed the heavens.
And the people stayed at home.
They read books.
They listened to the sounds of the earth.
And they rested.
They heard music they had missed for lifetimes.
They exercised, made art and music, and played because
they didn't have to prepare for anything
except how they lived in this quiet present.
They learned new ways of being.
For the introverts, it was bliss;
for the gregarious, it was a struggle.
So they sat and listened more deeply.
Some meditated and some prayed.
Some met their shadow.
And people began to think differently.
Sleep deeply, and they healed.
And in the absence of people who
lived in ignorant ways -
dangerous, meaningless and heartless -
the earth began to heal too.
And when the danger ended
and people found themselves again,
they grieved for the dead, for the sick
for the lonely
and for a world still haunted.
Let us now make new choices
and dream new visions
and create new ways of living.
So that we are able to heal the earth
just as we are healed.
Robin Peirce, with acknowledgement of a poem written after a cholera epidemic in the 19th century.