Whenever I was involved in a major project such as an IT systems implementation, one of the important things we had to do was to put together a risk management plan. There were a number of stages to this.
- Stage 1 identify the potential risks by listing everything that would possibly go wrong
- Stage 2 assess the risks. We would look at the probability of something happening and the impact on cost and time if it did.
- Stage 3 mitigate the risks. This might range from taking action to reduce or eliminate the probability of something happening or simply including contingencies into the plan such as additional time or money being set aside.
The important thing about stage 3 is that we only focused on those risks where there was a high probability and a high impact. Sadly, too often when it comes to risk, people often miss out stage 2. They either list every possible thing that can go wrong and try to resolve every possibility or they decide on the basis of the list that they simply cannot attempt to go on with the project, it is too risky.
I’m talking today about risk assessment and management because I think we have seen some failures to understand risk management in the conversations between theologians and church leaders about how to respond to the Coronavirus lockdown. Let me explain with the big example that seems to have dominated, should we take communion.
What are the risks associated with not finding ways to share communion together? We might list them as follows.
- That we might be disobeying a Biblical command to gather in Jesus’ name and to remember his death and resurrection. A command for which we can find no opt out clause.
- That we might be failing to love and care for the congregation and to meet a genuine and reasonable need.
What are the risks associated with choosing to discontinue communion completely? From what I have heard, the risks assessed seem to be:
- On a pragmatic level, we are afraid that people will become used to lockdown provision online and if we don’t make it clear that this is a fast, a painful absence then people may become contented and not see the need to returning to gathering in a building at the end.
- On a theological and pastoral level, the fear has been expressed that somehow we might be stumbling into a world where we deny the importance of physical/embodied gathering and thus end up introducing a form of Gnosticism into the church.
The risks have been named but what are the greater risks? Where should our focus be? I want to suggest as gently as possible to my brothers who are refusing to participate in communion that they are acting on the basis of vague and remote possibilities. I have been told several times that taking communion now might in some unknown, undefined way open a doorway to Gnosticism. This despite the fact that each time I have shown why the commitment to share bread and wine arises out of a belief that embodied, physical gathering matters. I have to say that this fear of Gnosticism is based on a low, practical none existent probability. It is as though we have created a bogeyman with which to frighten ourselves.
However, as a pastor, each day I am alert to the real and immediate needs of the congregation. I am not talking selfish or misguided wants but real needs. Sheep need to be gathered, fed and protected and our congregations are looking to us to find ways to do these things during coronavirus. I believe that the greater risk is that I fail to do that and so fail to love the congregation I have been given responsibility for.