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Dr Victoria Lorrimar. Photo: Supplied

Online learning and fellowship despite the distancing

As educational institutions transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Trinity College Queensland is no exception, and despite the social distancing online learning and fellowship continues for the staff and students. Trinity’s Systematic Theology Lecturer Dr Victoria Lorrimar writes. 

No doubt this is about the 112th article you’ve read on how Christians ought to respond to COVID-19. What else can be said at this point? I don’t have any original profundities to share, but did want to give Trinity’s wider community a peek into how online learning and fellowship has begun, and how this is shaping me as one who belongs to God’s church.

On Tuesday 24 March I sat in my home and spoke to, listened to and watched 14 students on my screen, all joining a virtual classroom from their own homes. As students logged on one-by-one, they greeted one another, checked in with each other (several are chaplains working in fairly risky contexts at present), and settled in for a couple of hours. We occasionally fumbled with un-muting ourselves for discussion, but people spoke thoughtfully and responded warmly and intelligently to one another. Children and pets made the occasional welcome appearance.

The class was Church, Sacraments and Ministry and we were thinking about the classic “marks” of the church listed in the Nicene Creed—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The church today might seem a long way off from these marks, with its denominational divisions and theological disputes. How can we continue to affirm this?

Our class unpacked Jürgen Moltmann’s treatment of the marks of the church (from The Church in the Power of the Spirit), who presents them to us as statements of hope. Though it falls short, they call the church to action. Moltmann interprets each mark in light of the call placed on us, the church. I’d like to highlight his framing of apostolicity (generally understood to mean a faithfulness to the tradition and teachings handed down from the apostles) as a mission connected to the kingdom of God, a mission that began in and is characterised by suffering. The church testifies to the freedom and hope offered in Christ in suffering—it is apostolic when it takes up its cross.

It’s tempting to turn inward at present—self-isolation can easily spill over into self-pity or self-absorption. And I don’t necessarily mean as individuals. Several students spoke of the need for the church, under pressure as it already is to maintain connections with its existing members, to remain missional. Of course we need to look after the vulnerable within our church communities (many pastoral care teams have kicked into overdrive, which is wonderful to see!). Uniting Church in Australia theologian Robyn Whitaker gives an excellent treatment of the church’s response to COVID-19 with respect to its own community in this article. But the question we kept returning to as a class was “How can the church reach outside itself in this time?”

We aren’t called to suffer just for the sake of suffering. The church can take on a bit of a “martyr” complex at times, crying “persecution” or proclaiming a new time of exile. On this point I can be really clear—the present shutdown of face-to-face worship to slow the transmission of COVID-19 is not an attack on the church, nor a secular order that we are called to resist. Nor will we be rewarded and protected for faithfully continuing to meet in fellowship. For now, loving our neighbour means staying at home as far as is possible. Those of us that are healthy and low risk give up some freedom to protect the vulnerable, and to allow those without the ability to stay at home to do what they need to do with less risk also.

And we pray for those who continue to go out—the healthcare workers and chaplains working in hospitals, the teachers and childcare providers who enable these essential services to continue. We give thanks that for most of us staying at home is merely inconvenient—we’re either a little bored or feeling cooped up or perhaps having to juggle our work and study with caring for our kids. In Australia, loss of income does not usually lead to starvation. Without trivialising the impact of shutdowns on the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of all, there are especially vulnerable people within our own city, and there are parts of the world in which this virus will be truly crippling. How do we as a church look outside ourselves?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m glad we are asking the question. With a community filled with people ministering across a range of contexts, we have much to learn from one another. In the midst of suffering, let’s be a witness to the hope that we have in Christ by the way that we conduct ourselves. The answers we came up with are not novel or extreme or profound, but all are pretty simple: refuse to panic buy, practise physical distancing diligently and cheerfully, reach out to physical neighbours as well as your church community. If you have the means, support those who are harder hit.

As I exited the online lecture myself I left it open for a while longer, glancing across from time to time to see students lingering, encouraging one another, equipping colleagues to continue practising hope in this time of pandemic.

Dr Victoria Lorrimar

Dr Victoria Lorrimar is the Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Trinity College Queensland.

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