Each Sunday during the current Covid-19 lockdown, while churches and places of worship have been forced put a halt to congregational worship, The Reverend Paul Hunt, priest-in-charge in Hastings Old Town, will offer some words of support and an opportunity for the community to reflect on the challenges we face.
There is, I am told, a woman who always comes to our Church Christmas Fayre and buys ten wrapped mystery presents of varying financial value. Last year, when asked for whom she was buying them, she explained that she was buying them for herself because it meant that she would have some presents she could unwrap on Christmas Day which, like other days, she spent alone. I do not know her name but I shall christen her Eleanor.
That story really moves me. It may be, of course, that Eleanor is perfectly content and enjoys her solitude but the absence of our 2020 Fayre due to Covid-19 will have its impact.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has been detrimental to the mental health of very many people. There is the anxiety caused by the fear of losing a job or a home, the sorrow experienced by those who are bereaved and the loneliness of those, not least in care homes, who are separated from loved ones.
Loneliness has become an increasing feature of the human experience as family members have become more dispersed, automation replaces human contact and the number of one-person households increases. It might surprise us but a BBC survey in 2018 showed that loneliness was more prevalent among young adults than among the elderly. According to the Office for National Statistics, some 4.2 million adults ’always or often’ felt lonely compared with 2.6 million before the pandemic.
“Look at all the lonely people,” wrote Paul McCartney in his 1966 song about Eleanor Rigby… “who died in the church and was buried along with her name” and whose funeral was only attended by the equally lonely Father McKenzie who kept busy “writing sermons that no-one would hear”.
Loneliness is a modern epidemic which we can all do something to combat…
It’s important to stress that solitude is not the same as loneliness and that, like Greta Garbo, there will be times when we want to be alone. And, of course, we will all have had the disconcerting experience of feeling lonely in a crowd, not least at those gatherings where everyone except us seems to know everyone else.
St Clements and All Saints, like places of worship elsewhere, have again been closed for communal worship during lockdown. Religious leaders have protested to the Government, partly on the grounds of serious research that religion is good for our mental health.
I am conscious as I write that victims of sexual and spiritual abuse in the Churches will see my last sentence as unpleasantly ironic and I apologise for that. However, a sense of belonging, of being valued and a faith which provides meaning in an increasingly unpredictable world is undoubtedly good for our mental health.
The NHS offers a helpful web page suggesting positive ways of tackling loneliness (https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/coping-loneliness-during-coronavirus-outbreak/)
Loneliness is a modern epidemic which we can all do something to combat within ourselves and by promoting a sense of community in our locality.
Thankfully, I am not Father McKenzie or at least not yet. But we are all potential Eleanor Rigbys.
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in the Old Town. St. Clement’s is open from 11.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. every day during lockdown for anyone who wants to pray or simply be quiet and reflect or meditate.