During a recent research day with chaplains it became clear that alongside a greater use of technology, the pandemic has stimulated letter writing. This may seem to be contrary to much of what we’ve heard about the way ministers have responded to enforced distancing. Many stories have emerged about the use of Zoom and similar technologies. Yet our conversation revealed a small but significant practice of increased letter writing.
I like letters and cards. There is something both personal and enduring about hand-written communication. On our recent holiday I sent cards to two people I trained with – using the more leisured time to select a card and compose my greeting. Receiving letters always reminds me that people spent time thinking about me and thinking about our friendship. Handwriting can’t be cut and pasted.
“Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”Lord Byron quoted in Williams, L. (2012). Kind regards: The lost art of letter writing. Michael O’Mara Books.
All this made me wonder about the place of letters in Christianity. The Epistles in the New Testament offer an insight into the theology, experience and mechanics of the early Church. I’m not sure whether Christianity is unique in having letters as sacred scripture, but it certainly seems unusual. Pursuing this thought I came across Antonia Sari’s work on letter writing in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears that the collection and publication of private correspondence doesn’t happen until the first century BC, when the letters of Cicero were made public. This suggests that the practice of publishing personal letters develops only shortly before the emergence of Christianity.
“The same written form that forces the author to more intense reflection also provides the addressee with opportunities for unhurried reading and interpretive rereading”.Klauck, H. J., & Bailey, D. P. (2006). Ancient letters and the New Testament: A guide to context and exegesis. Baylor University Press.
Unlike electronic communications letters feel like they send something of oneself. They convey a high degree of peronsalisation – which is perhaps why charitable appeal letters often strive to mimic handwriting. We might think of the person composing the letter – knowing their home and their walk to the nearby letterbox. The whole ritual of writing, sealing, addressing and posting emphasises the care and thought committed to the process. For the chaplains on the research day the motivation to do this was also linked to people’s limited resources. Not everyone has e-mail or affordable access to the internet. The cost of letter writing sits with the sender, not the recipient.
At the University of Leeds School of English Alison Searle is leading an AHRC study which includes an examination of the use of letters as a form of pastoral care. Set in an historic context, this research has much to contribute to our present understanding of the way letters help or hinder the expression of care. Unexpectedly for those involved with the project, Covid-19 has created a situation in which support-at-distance has gained renewed relevance.
It is a pity that sending letters has become so expensive. There is a vicious cycle in which the post becomes more costly so fewer people use it – which in turn places pressure on its viability. Perhaps this year, given our unique circumstances, there will be a rise in the number of Christmas cards sent, reversing a longstanding decline. We may need to re-evaluate the trend to substitute the cost of cards with a gift to charity, or the tendency to opt for an e-greeting. Making time to send something of ourselves to the people we care about has a value beyond the influences which have reduced the custom. Perhaps this December, the love and care conveyed by handwritten messages will be rediscovered as one of the most valuable gifts of the festive season.