Christian missionary Amy Carmichael commented that a cup of sweet water cannot spill one bitter drop no matter how suddenly it has been jarred. We have all been jarred suddenly and thoroughly and we haven't yet got back on our feet. Yet, while London comes to it senses, I have some disturbing suspicions.

From my standpoint in Wimbledon, COVID-19 has revealed some bitter drops under the surface. Sadly, I'm not talking about politics or the media but the church in this city. There is much to celebrate - like unity and earnest prayer - but I am seriously bothered about a number of things.

VE Day Wimbledon War Memorial

People stand for a two-minute silence at Wimbledon War Memorial to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, in London on 8th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Kevin Coombs

My first disturbing suspicion is that race is an even bigger issue than we thought. 

An early rumour about the virus was that black people were immune. Then Idris Elba got it. One recent headline was that British black people are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Other ethnic groups are also at greater risk. Some of the reasons for this may be explainable by clinicians but one of my suspicions is that there are other factors. 

"William Wilberforce lived in a house up the road from our church. Every time I pass, I will pray that God will raise up women and men like him to right the wrongs that will be glaringly obvious to future generations. This horrible virus is no respecter of persons, but it has exploited systems which favour the privileged. May we take notice."

People in ethnic minorities are more likely to have a lower income, live in more crowded homes and have jobs which can’t be done at home. If intrinsic racism in British society is in any way a part of that, it isn’t OK. We haven't arrived. The church should lead in raising the flag against it and white Christian leaders need to increasingly listen to the voices of those who have been marginalised for generations. William Wilberforce lived in a house up the road from our church. Every time I pass, I will pray that God will raise up women and men like him to right the wrongs that will be glaringly obvious to future generations. This horrible virus is no respecter of persons, but it has exploited systems which favour the privileged. May we take notice.

This overlaps with my second disturbing suspicion. Are we enjoying online ministry a little too much? People in the cloud are so much easier than people in the pews. 

My sermons have more views, which is fantastic. They may not listen to the end, but not everyone did anyway. Watching someone fall asleep in the same room when you’re talking is harder. Welcoming people in turret-like conditions can be more difficult in a crowded space. Babies cry louder in the building and I don't get to choose my own snacks after church. No strangers appear to ask for financial help. Personally, I miss the messiness of church, but online church is easier. We have yet to master the technology but at least I don’t have to check the toilet roll before the service (the last time we met it was stolen!) 

My fear is that this is really theological. We actually don't always like the incarnation that much. Being human is such a burden sometimes. We're complicated and moody, which would be tolerable if it weren't for everyone else. Wouldn't it have been better if Jesus didn't become human but made us all into spirits wafting around the cloud with smart phones and harps?

The race problem which I mentioned above brings this home. The NHS, like other care providers, have a higher proportion of ethnic minorities than the general population. Might those whose parents or grandparents were born in far off lands have something to teach us about real service and true theology?  Is it possible that their experience of prejudice has honed their empathy, making them more like Jesus than me? I like the rush of seeing hearts flashing on my livestream. However, there is a bigger rush that I am looking for and thankfully often see. It's the heart of one who dons a mask and hums a hymn as they clean a sick man's bed. It reminds me of the one who donned a towel to wash 24 filthy feet. 

My third suspicion is a little older. It's that Sunday School picnics are just as important as D-Day landings.

In a safe in our church is a book of elders' meeting minutes from World War II. I was so excited to read it but found out it is really boring. I imagined discussions of espionage or about the buildings that had been bombed. Instead, there are plans of Sunday school picnics and how many pounds, shillings and pence were in the coffers. It was church as usual during unusual times. That would be a terrible thing in a book on radical leadership - but what if it's good that they didn't think outside the box?

"Be present physically when it is safe and possible. Find ways to be present when it's not. Read the Scriptures, say prayers, meet when you can or walk past people's houses. Send notes. Use technology. And as soon as you can, plan a picnic with loud children, grumpy old people, egg sandwiches, a badly played guitar. Maybe a boy will turn up with five loaves and two smelly fish and who knows what will happen. "

CS Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters during the same period and explains in the preface why he doesn’t comment more on the war. He says that, as important as the war may have been, it didn’t often impinge upon the spiritual condition of one human being. Celebrating the anniversary of VE Day, we thank God for those who sacrificed everything for freedom to have Sunday school picnics, bar mitzvahs and countless other freedoms. We are grateful for those taking equally brave risks to save lives in our current crisis.  

But what is the role of church leaders and God’s people in this day? We can campaign to be recognised as part of the essential workforce. We can argue that worship should resume before pubs and sport. We should refuse to return to business as usual. Choices for a new reality with new possibilities should be sought. But most of all, let's just be there. Be present physically when it is safe and possible. Find ways to be present when it's not. Read the Scriptures, say prayers, meet when you can or walk past people's houses. Send notes. Use technology. And as soon as you can, plan a picnic with loud children, grumpy old people, egg sandwiches, a badly played guitar. Maybe a boy will turn up with five loaves and two smelly fish and who knows what will happen.

Richard Thomas is pastor at Hillside Church in Wimbledon, London.