The Dean's Ascensiontide message

Wednesday 20 May

So we are in our third month of Lockdown – time has rushed by… and dragged on! We have become accustomed to our exile yet ever more frustrated by it.

We may be hyper-active or guilty at our inaction or inability to act; accepting but angry; in denial or wanting to negotiate the terms ... all classic symptoms of bereavement which in truth we all feel to a greater or lesser extent, whether we are among those who have developed or re-discovered some hidden talent or skill, or who have been flat-out communicating with colleagues and families via the Zoom or the internet!

But now we begin to enter a new phase. Restrictions are gradually being lifted and some closed businesses are re-opening.

It’s an uncertain time. It was easy to close everything down in the face of an immediate threat, much harder to return when many are still ill or struggling with the virus. While some are desperate to be out and about, many are still fearful or anxious. Whether it’s our schools or offices or cafés or other workplaces, there are fine judgements to be made about what can be done to get life re-started without generating another spike in infections. Our knowledge of the virus is still limited; we have no cure, no vaccine, so every step brings with it some degree of risk as well as progress.

The Government’s “road map” remains sketchy and provisional and our own direction of travel as a church is still far from clear.

Clergy have been permitted to return to “their” churches to stream services – but on their own or with members of their own household only. The next phase would seem to be the possibility of being able to host small scale funerals or baptisms or weddings but with strict hygiene measures in place and deep cleaning before and afterwards. A return to some kind of gathered worship or private prayer (and there appears to be some debate about which is easier to manage) may begin from early July if all goes well.

What that worship will look and feel like is another issue. There will be a limit on numbers, that is clear, and chairs will need to be 2m apart. There will be no congregational singing because evidence suggests that this is the most likely way to spread infection. It’s not clear yet how this will affect choral singing but clearly social distancing will apply to choirs too. How we shall safely share Communion once we are together again is also to be determined and we are watching carefully what is being done elsewhere, where worship resumes.

Our Cathedral of course has the advantage of a lot of space and little, in the nave, by way of fixed furnishings. It will help us be open for worship sooner than some and may also enable us to be open for visits and private prayer sooner than others, as we can manage access in a way that will keep everyone safe.

As you can imagine the Cathedral team is working hard on how we can re-open and we are developing a detailed ‘mobilisation’ plan (with particular thanks to Maria Elsey) to that end.

The safety of our staff, of our volunteers and of our congregations and visitors has to be our absolute top priority.

Finance remains a deep concern with so much revenue having been lost. Even the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, whilst off-setting some of our costs, does not cover them all; and of course, even before lockdown, we were still some distance from establishing the sustainable financial situation we all seek.

That gives me the opportunity to say an enormous thank you to all who have been able to continue to make your stewardship contributions to the Cathedral, to those who have increased their giving or made one-off additional gifts, and to those who have given their year’s donation in advance. That all helps enormously, not least with cash flow, and we are deeply conscious of your generosity at this time.

I know these past weeks have been difficult for us all. Some have felt it wrong for our churches and Cathedrals to have been closed and for the Eucharist not to have been celebrated. Surely, some have asked, if supermarkets can be open should not ways have been found to satisfy our spiritual hunger? These are questions that many have wrestled with – not least the Cathedral clergy.

Hopefully we have found some new and innovative ways to meet people’s spiritual hunger. Hundreds of people have accessed our online worship and there has been some very positive feedback, and it has obviously been a life-line in dark days. I want to renew my thanks to my all my colleagues who have worked so hard (and learnt so much) to make that happen.

But questions remain. Should clergy have been prohibited from entering their churches?

That idea begs so many questions. In what sense do our churches “belong” to the clergy? Don’t our church buildings belong to all God’s priestly people? For me it has been important to share the experience of exile that most of you have experienced.

Should our churches have been closed at all?

Nearly 35,000 people have died in this country of the coronavirus – in closing our churches we have sought to set an example of self-discipline to the wider community, to protect those among us who are vulnerable and to help to inhibit the spread of the virus. And of course, closing our buildings has never meant closing God’s Church.

And as for Holy Communion. Why, by and large, have we not celebrated this wonderful sacrament? Would it not have been comforting for people to know it was happening – even if remotely? Opinions differ strongly about this, even among the Cathedral clergy here, but for me it has been important to follow our Bishop’s lead and not to celebrate Communion until we are able to do that together. At the heart of this lies our understanding of the meaning of Communion.

“The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the Body Christ?” asks St Paul, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. The Eucharist is more than a symbolic reminder of Jesus love for his people, it is spiritual food for the people of God. Sharing in the Body of Christ, he is literally “re-membered” and we become His Body in the world. It is not something passive but something that requires our active participation.

Of course, fasting from Communion over these weeks has been really hard – I have felt it deeply – the Eucharist has been central to my faith and ministry, but this wilderness time will come to an end and we shall be together again. Until then I shall not wish to celebrate or receive Communion until that becomes possible for all of you too.

This week we celebrate Christ’s Ascension. Christ left his disciples without a detailed “road map” but with the promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to be their advocate and guide. As we prepare for Pentecost, let us be patient and steadfast, let us pray with all our hearts for those who grieve, for those who continue to suffer, for those who care for them, for the end of this terrible scourge.

And let us pray fervently for the gift of the Holy Spirit, for the coming of God’s Kingdom for the renewal of our Church and our communities and let us give thanks that Christ has promised to be with us, even to the end of the age and is with us in all that lies ahead.

May God bless you all

Chris Dallliston




The Very Revd Christopher Dalliston
Dean of Peterborough


Photo: David Lowndes, JPIMedia Publishing Ltd

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