“Well, so, how are you managing?” asked the Bishop. “This pandemic carries on, rather, doesn’t it?”, he continued. These were the opening remarks from Bishop John Stephens, made at the first parish visit of his episcopacy. This has to have been the quietest “opening night" of any bishop’s career.
A plague will do that. Less than a dozen were in attendance: to be exact, four singers; three readers, an intercessor, a camera operator & a parish priest and they were masked and socially distanced prior to worship and physically distanced during. Not the kind of standing-room-only welcome that All Saints, Ladner usually gives to a newly-minted bishop on their first visit. No well-rehearsed anthem or long communion line. No sumptuous after-church buffet in the parish hall.
The morning of Sunday, February 7, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: it was a subdued affair. As it should be in these extraordinary times.
Bishop John arrived an hour before we were due to livestream, parked in a designated spot - a nice touch by Rev. Robin Ruder-Celiz given how few cars were expected - and spent some time familiarizing himself with the worship space. He had been here before, of course, at Fr. Robin’s installation sixteen months earlier. That evening, he was a parish priest at St. John’s Shaughnessy: on Feb 7 he is still in preparation to become the 10th Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster.
I had a few minutes before the service started to chat with Bishop John. In the old days - read pre-pandemic - Irish people would always talk about the weather. Nowadays, we exchange news about COVID-19. I asked after his mother, now living in Ireland. He laughed. “She’s living on a farm in County Cavan, which was a quiet place even before the pandemic. She is doing well. And your family? All healthy?” I assured him that they were, thank God.
We chatted about the service: I would be filming his homily, for posting on the diocesan website. I mentioned that I would also be snapping a few stills. He put me at my ease, telling me that he was comfortable with me moving about the sanctuary, as necessary, while he spoke.
Beginning his homily, Bishop John commented on the fact that many congregations - though not able to meet in-person - had seen a noticeable improvement in online attendance. He then keyed in on the phrase “Everyone is searching for you”, taken from Mark’s gospel (Mark 1-37). He pointed to a similar theme in the old testament reading, Isaiah 40: 21 “have you not seen; have not heard…..it is God who sits above the earth?” “We search; we seek; we desire to know God. He concluded by asking “What are you searching for?”
Following the Peace, four members of the choir sang three verses of Marty Haugen’s All Are Welcome. Choir director. Rod Asher reminded the singers about the need to annunciate. They were a little out of practise. This quartet had last sung together in November, when they recorded music for Advent & Christmas. On this occasion, Haugen’s hymn carried a kind of plaintive hope for the future - All Are Welcome morphed into All Will Soon Be Welcomed.
Following the service, Bishop Stephens tuned in to the All Saints Zoom Coffee Hour, where he fielded questions from the thirty or so people in attendance.
We look forward to a Sunday when we can give +John a worthy reception. Believe me, that day cannot come soon enough.