In this pandemic, boundaries once thought impassable are being overrun. The responses of politicians and of citizens have shown that far-reaching collective resolve is possible, if we have the will. We can tame the ecological and social crises of our times if, as we did with the Coronavirus, we acknowledge them as the existential threat they are.

This is a time of consequences. We cannot yet know whether those consequences will be for better or worse, or a troubling mix of both. In fact better and worse may be distinguishable only with distant hindsight. But the choices we make now as a human race will seal our future, and that of life on Earth. As this Guardian article from June 2020 reports, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, considers that decisions made in the second half of 2020 could be the world’s last chance to avert climate catastrophe.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr explores the significance of this threshold or ‘liminal’ moment in a daily meditation from the Centre for Action and Contemplation:

Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed… This global pandemic we now face is an example of an immense, collective liminal space.

Writing in the Financial Times on 3 April 2020, Arundhati Roy makes a similar point:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

The gift of this liminal moment is nothing unusual. It is given in every moment by God who makes all things new, but we seldom care to notice. For Christians, it is to be noticed most, and treasured, in the word of God, the Bible, and most especially in the medium of water: the Great Flood, the Red Sea, and the Jordan, by which the people of Israel crossed into the Promised Land. The Jordan was the same crossing-place to which John the Baptist returned, and Jesus, and all subsequent generations of Christians, in the waters of baptism.

Today’s session considers the event of Coronavirus as a threshold or crossing place, in our own life experience and in our nation’s history. It stands with those other thresholds in salvation history, with the near-submersions, at once miraculous and traumatic, that have been the making of the people of God. This threshold is taking months to cross rather than seconds, but that does not detract from its transformative potential – it just makes it harder to hold our nerve.

It is becoming a truism to say that ‘nothing will be the same again’. It takes more courage to say that nothing should be the same again, especially when wealth and power are ranged against change. However we may be heartened that only 9 percent of people in the UK say life should return to ‘normal’: this news article summarises a longer research report from the RSA.

There is a risk of underestimating the interests vested in the way things were, and their determination simply to ‘bounce back’, to evade the challenge of change. We too may sometimes be tempted to turn back to the familiar, but in the Bible God calls us on to cross the threshold of change.

This session will be founded on Matthew’s story of John the Baptist (below).

If you do still have a moment, read this poem, Threshold, by R. S. Thomas, which some find expresses their current state of transition well:

... I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. 

Preparatory reading and reflection

To summarise, we recommend reading Matthew 3.1-6, this meditation from Richard Rohr, and this article from the RSA.

Opening liturgy

Together with all in Christ, we wait
Come Holy Spirit; soak into our deepest being
We pray together with all your people
Come Holy Spirit; breeze through our staleness
We will hear the scriptures together
Come Holy Spirit; fire up our imaginations for good

There follows a moment of quiet

We will listen to a short extract from the Bible reading (Matthew 3.1-4):

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’ John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. 

Questions for exploration

Before you dive in, please agree a volunteer to write a brief summary of your group’s conclusions.

  • Ask someone from your group to read this verse again from today’s reading: People went out to John from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Then consider what made you sign up for Radical Presence, and ask each other: What has ‘brought you out’ to meet here at this transitional place? What do you hope for in gathering over the next few weeks?
  • For the people of Israel, the River Jordan was a threshold between past and future, slavery and freedom. For Christians, so is baptism. Do you see the pandemic as a threshold moment to be recognised and seized? Or do you just feel bewildered by the fact that no end seems to be in sight?
  • Do you agree with the findings in the research reported by the RSA that very few people want to return to the way things were? Are you finding that people around you say the same? What do you think are the chances of these hopes being realised – and why might they be resisted?

Closing liturgy

For this session’s liturgy, please click this link.

Here’s what they made of Jordan in Chelmsford Diocese, with further reflection from Andy Griffiths and Imogen Nay on why we resist change. Progress into a post-Covid ‘promised land’ seemed within our reach in April 2020, but now, as the pandemic goes on, they reflect that ‘the liminal’ requires more courage and imagination of us. There’s also a fascinating reflection on the dynamics of social change, drawing on the the anthropolgist Claude Levy-Strauss.