“For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”
The words rang out crystal clear through the nave of St Martin in the Fields one November day during lockdown. I was watching Morning Prayer online as ten singers, socially distanced, sang their psalms and anthems so beautifully.
The imagery from Psalm 95 took me straight back to my earliest years, to a memory of standing silently by my mother in church as the Venite was said during Matins. The weekly repetition left the words imprinted on my mind.
At that time, many people in Britain saw themselves as the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of his hand. it’s a picture of humility, trusting contentment and a willingness to be led. Not qualities we go in for in a big way these days, but a picture that recurs throughout the Bible.
Somewhere along the line the nation decided it didn’t want to be God’s people any more. We see the outworkings of that choice every day, in a chaotic search for meaning and security from sources which can‘t deliver. The need for a Good Shepherd couldn’t be clearer.
Church retains a place in the nation’s psyche, however marginal. As recently as Broadchurch, the TV drama about a small town locked in grief, we saw a community holding together in churchgoing. I’m afraid the image may be more virtual than real, as most people in Britain today don’t attend church or know the language of faith. But if there’s still a trace memory, still some coals glowing, when would be a better time to rekindle it than during a national time of need? I believe there is time - just.
I’m puzzled by the failure of our national church leaders to speak to the nation about God
We know that the pandemic has prompted many to tune in to church online, or turn to God in prayer. That’s a sure sign the spark is alive. God hasn’t deserted us. But I’m puzzled by the failure of our national church leaders to speak to the nation about God. I waited for them to give some assurance, to invite us to learn to become God’s people again. But the silence was deafening. There was no shortage of comment about the politics of the pandemic (praising key workers, asking the Government to open churches, commenting on overseas aid). All worthwhile, of course. But the notion that we could be sheep in God’s pasture? Our Gospel message has barely raised its head. I guess it just isn’t in tune with the times?
For centuries Britain held days of prayer at times of special need. The best known, in May 1940, was a plea for the nation to renew its dependence on God, ask forgiveness for wrongdoing in the country’s life, and ask for God’s blessing (the Dunkirk evacuation was days away). It was one of several days of prayer held during the war. But wars weren’t the only occasions for a call to prayer. Plague, famine, tumults - the Book of Common Prayer has special prayers for them all. Whenever the need of God’s deliverance was widely felt, the nation would fall to its knees.
The last national day of prayer was more than 70 years ago. Since then church bells have fallen silent, churches have been sold off for flats, and our national church leaders have become more comfortable talking about social issues than about our need for God. Generations are suffering from the church’s silence.
True, the Archbishops did recently ask churches to pray for the nation - although, eleven months into the pandemic, I can’t imagine there’s a single church that hasn’t been praying all along! They also wrote a letter to the nation, asking us to be calm, courageous and compassionate at this time. The call to faith is there - faintly - like a star perched on top of a Christmas tree, homely and comforting. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it," they end (John 1:5), adding: "Let us shine in the darkness of this winter."
Am I alone in thinking that an opportunity was missed?
There are so many opportunities and possibilities to share the hope we have, but who is going to hear the message if we messengers keep quiet about our faith? The words of St Paul come to mind: "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Romans 10:14)
"O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker," urges the Psalmist. "For he is the Lord our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand." May it still be so.
Jill Harris is a freelance writer and has worked for various Christian organisations as a fundraiser and publicist. Her book Time Stood Still: Stories of Mystical Encounters was published under her pen name Madeleine Hill.
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