Once Again on the Location of Worship: The Persecuted Church and Domestic Space

Kings College Chapel (photo: author)

It’s been over a month since I’ve kept my Covid diary. The long weekend has afforded me a bit more time to write and reflect. Part of my thinking has revolved once again around the whole “location” controversy in the Church of England.

In my piece on worship location as adiaphoron (where I argued that the matter is ultimately non-essential), there were a couple of points that I didn’t get to discuss that I’d like to touch on briefly now.

On the term adiaphoron itself, I realise that this argument works from my perspective. I want to worship together, and yes in a church building, but the church building does not take pre-eminence at the moment. To refer to the location of worship as non-essential clearly fits with a more Reformed perspective. While I prefer to eschew labels in favour of substantive dialogue, they are useful heuristic tools. Laying my cards on the table, I would consider myself a liturgical reformed Anglican, which is probably massively redundant as the Reformed tradition within Anglicanism was liturgical to its core…In any case, I recognise that the term adiaphoron does not really work for Anglo-Catholic friends, for whom the location of worship isn’t an optional luxury or choice since the church building is a consecrated space in which the priest acts as representative of the people. So adiaphoron isn’t perhaps the best argument for bridge-building, I admit, even if it is true to my more Reformed convictions. (I suppose this would be a good point for me to outline my own ecclesiology but, perhaps cheekily, I’ll save that for another blog).

I also would like to have discussed the role of church buildings, sacred and domestic space and the persecuted church a bit more.

In terms of church buildings, I focussed on the role of aesthetics, but really I should have acknowledged the variety of roles a church building plays. As I found in my research whilst a research associate at Theos, a church building is often the hub of the community, functioning through a cafe or food bank or classroom as a rich source of social capital. Moreover, as noted above, the church building is also, in certain traditions, seen as holy space where worshippers connect with the throng of heaven throughout space and time.

As I outlined in my piece, I worship in just a such context currently and hugely appreciate this emphasis on sacred space and the historical rootedness and capaciousness of the Christian tradition. But while we’re talking about the communion of saints and the church catholic, what of those sisters and brothers who cannot worship in church buildings for fear of humiliation, persecution or death? OpenDoors has recorded many such cases, including this one from North India.

Closer to home, Stephen Holmes has provided a timely Baptist intervention, noting that Baptists in the seventeenth (and sometimes up until the nineteenth) century in England faced horrific persecution from Anglican clergy and bishops for non-conformism. As Holmes writes, Baptists frequently employed kitchen tables as eucharists and hidden pools for baptisms. The domestic setting for worship is part of the warp and weft of the ecclesial history of these isles and we would do well to consider this fact before denigrating “retreats to the kitchen”.

But thankfully, all of this now seems to be water under the bridge, as the house of bishops decided last week to allow priests to enter churches. This will be welcomed by, among others, a good number of my Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters. I think it is right that there is now greater licence for those who wish to enter the church and it is good that bishops can no longer penalise or pressurise priests who want to enter their churches. It’s important that the hierarchy has also allowed for individual dioceses to emphasise that those who cannot enter their churches (whether for health reasons and the like) may continue to hold services from home. 

To be honest, I’m just glad that the issue seems to have been resolved so that the peace is kept. I do worry, though, that deep fissures have appeared around this issue and may well resurface in the future. I was reminded in reading a fantastic blog by Iona Morphet, that the most important thing in all of this is to consider how we have these debates. To be clear, I think these discussions need to be had, and I do believe that a pandemic is a good time to have them. But let’s do so with gentleness and respect. On many occasions, we’ve fallen short of this standard, myself included.

Perhaps on this issue, as with others, we need to recapture the beauty of the Elizabethan Settlement which upholds the freedom of conscience for Reformed and Anglo-Catholic congregations (and others) alike. Settlement and compromise is a difficult thing to come to, but our future together depends on it.

In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd. Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.

Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.

To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.

Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.

In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.

With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,

we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.

Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.

Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.

It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.

From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.

Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.

Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (http://jyotiartashram.blogspot.com/2007/10/sign-of-jonas.html)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 

Amen. 

Location, Location: Does It Matter Where Church Services Happen During the Coronavirus?

Peterborough Cathedral (photo by the author)

The Problem

On 24th March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York penned a joint letter in which they advised clergy not to enter churches to conduct services.

For some, this decision has spelled not only a missed opportunity but a dereliction of duty. Giles Fraser has complained that in abandoning its church buildings, the Church of England has retreated from public life. Fraser echoes Bishop Selby who has similarly registered his despondency over the church hierarchy’s decision to go beyond government advice. In doing so, Selby writes, those in positions of leadership

…seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory. 

I take a very different view.

It seems to me that there is enough leeway in the Archbishops’ guidance for particular bishops and dioceses to conduct services from their churches. Of course, this will depend on the viewpoint of the particular bishop, the greatest strength and weakness of Episcopalian ecclesiology. It seems especially strange to not permit clergy who live next to the church, or where they have access through a side door, to enter, should they want to.

And of course, that phrase “should they want to” is key. Some clergy will actually want to abstain from running a church service from their church building, perhaps out of solidarity with their congregations and communities, out of obedience to their bishop or some other reason. Some clergy I have spoken have expressed the sadness of streaming a service from an empty church in comparison to a warm study or the room of a house.

The current advice from the archbishops seems, to me at least, to be typically Anglican: it allows for those with a firm conviction (theological or otherwise) that the service should be held in the church to do so (again, depending of course on the bishop…though that might not stop some!). At the same time, it permits others who for their own reasons prefer, in this instance, to abstain, to do so. There is a merciful wideness to it.

I found Giles Fraser’s article thought-provoking and he made a number of good points. For instance, the use of the church building makes sense for those vicars whose home lives are chaotic, or the fact that vicars often check on the building for insurance purposes but not for worship-services). As an aside, I thought the title—”The CoE has retreated to the kitchen”—was poorly chosen. I don’t see any anti-feminist agenda to what Giles has written, but the language of retreating to the kitchen is open to that interpretation. The assumptions about secular and sacred spaces would be an entirely different blog post, however, and one I hope to return to!

More substantively, I do think that his piece, and others like it, rest on certain theological convictions and historical judgments that require discussion. To his credit, Giles has raised these points for discussion. This is surely one of the benefits of Anglicanism: a measure of top-down ruling that also has the capacity to take account of voices “from below”.

What I want to focus on in this piece is the issue of location of worship specifically under the circumstances of the current lockdown. I am not discussing the location of collective worship generally but only services held during “Corona-tide”, as some have come to name it. I sense it is only right to consider our current and (as we like to call them) unprecedented circumstances.

All are in agreement that collective church services cannot be held. So the main two choices are:

  1. the vicar/priest streams the service from his/her church
  2. the vicar/priest streaming a service from his/her home

The question can be put like this: Does it matter where church services are held during Corona-tide? Is the location of worship services held under lockdown important?

My short answer is that in the current circumstances, no it does not ultimately matter. What matters is how we address the fact that we are apart from one another. Yes, we are apart from church buildings, and these buildings matter enormously. However, the vicar streaming the service from the church does not, in my view, bring us back together under the one roof of the church.

My judgment that the location of worship being non-essential in these circumstances betrays my own reading of history and theology. Allow me to explain.

The Location of Christian Worship Historically is An Adiaphoron

I hold to the view that the location of Christian worship is non-essential. The technical term for this is adiaphoron, meaning something that is neither morally bad nor good, but neutral. The location of Christian gatherings is, morally speaking, indifferent. (For more on the Stoic origins of this term and Paul’s borrowing of it, see Alex Muir’s blogpost here).

What matters is that Christians are together. And this view coheres with the biblical and theological traditions.

To risk gross over-simplification, there seems to me to be a movement in Judaism and Christianity from an informal setting for worship towards the development of more formal structures and locations for rites and ceremonies.

In Abraham and his descendants, we read of a pilgrim people searching for a land in which to dwell, settling in Egypt under Joseph only to be enslaved by a newly ascendant Pharaoh. Having been miraculously delivered by God in the Exodus, the people wander for 40 years in the desert before finally entering the Promised Land. We then read of the building of the temple under Solomon, a significantly new development. The construction of the the temple is followed, however, by a series of disastrous exiles during which the temple is destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed once more.

In early Christianity, there is, mutatis mutandis, a similar movement away from informal attitudes towards venues towards the desire for more formal locations of worship. A few texts demonstrate the earlier attitude of indifference towards location:

1. John 4:19-24

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

2. Revelation 21:1-4

John’s vision of the new heavens and a new earth at the end of the book of Revelation is one in which God is with his people. No temple for the new heavens and new earth, as God communes directly with his worshippers.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’”.

Alongside such texts, there is also a strain of tradition that identifies Jesus himself as the new temple of God.

3. John 2:18–22

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. ”

4. Matthew 26:60–62

“Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?’”

In identifying himself, and in being identified by his followers, as the temple of God, Jesus pointed to the true purpose of the temple: to be the place where God met with his people.

***

So we’ve witnessed the strain of indifference to the particular location of worship in the earliest Christian documents. This raises the question: where, then, did early Christians worship?

Early Christians in the first two centuries, as far as we can tell, did not meet in anything resembling what we think of today as consecrated church buildings. As far as we can tell, such buildings, often referred to as basilicas, emerged later under Constantine the Great.

By contrast, the early Christian gathering (or ekklesia; Greek: ἐκκλησία) most often took the form of a house-church. A wealthy patron or benefactor allowed the use of their home for gatherings for singing, the reading of scripture, baptism, the sharing of the Eucharist and preaching.

The historian of early Christianity Eddy Adams has recently encouraged us to expand the list of early Christian meeting places. On the basis of existing textual and archaeological data, he concludes that early Christians also met in retail spaces such as workshops, leisure areas and burial places. Indeed, early Christians often employed public places like the outer temple for their worship, as several episodes from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles demonstrate (see Acts 2:46).

This indifference to location is also born out by slightly later Christian texts. The testimony of Justin Martyr (dated sometime to the mid second century but extant in later sources, including the Acta Martyrum) is remarkable for the evidence it provides of early Christian convictions about the location of worship. Justin’s defence before the Roman prefect Rusticus before his martyrdom is worth citing in full.

Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Where do you assemble?‘ Justin said, ‘Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful‘. Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Tell me where you assemble, or into what place do you collect your followers?’ Justin said, ‘I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than his. And if any one wished to come to me, I communicated to him the doctrines of truth‘. Rusticus said, ‘Are you not, then, a Christian?’ Justin said, ‘Yes, I am a Christian’.

Justin roots his indifference towards the location of assembly in the nature and character of God: “for God is not circumscribed by place”. Since he is invisible and “fills heaven and earth” he is worshipped “everywhere”. This isn’t simply a ploy on Justin’s part to avoid revealing the identity of other Christians (note that he does provide the name of “one Martinus” in his response to Rusticus). Rather, Justin continues the trajectory of adiaphoron attested to in the New Testament texts listed above.

***

Why does all of this matter for us?

The history of early Christian worship points to the general indifference of early Christians towards the location of worship.

Then as now, what matters is that Christians are together. For us living in lockdown, this means “being together” virtually, in eager anticipation of later being together in person. The practice of worshipping Almighty God should, for now, take precedence over where we do so.

Yes, aesthetics matter. I firmly believe that. Those traditions (or parts of a tradition) that enjoy the heritage of beautiful buildings adorned with artwork, sculpture and architectural wonders will rightly miss these places. I find myself just now worshipping in this part of the Anglican Church. I personally prefer this kind of aesthetic. I haven’t always worshipped in these kinds of settings. I have been part of churches that met in bowling greens, town halls and urban warehouses.

My preference for aesthetic beauty, though, is exactly that—a preference. It’s not a norm that should be enforced on others. Clearly those without the means or the desire to worship in such a space are not deficient in faith. On the contrary, they often complement those more architecturally blessed traditions with fervour in the faith, often expressed in terms of active discipleship, professionally produced modern music and an infectious enthusiasm to engage those outside their walls. In line with the location of worship being a preference, the archbishops’ decision appears to be a pragmatic one, taken in light of the current circumstances.

We clearly live in a tension between our particular places of worship and the universality of God whom, as Justin wrote so long ago, can be worshipped anywhere. There is surely an important piece to be written on how our church buildings reflect the particularity of place. I hope to return to this issue in another blog, and have touched on it here. But what the lockdown is bringing out in full colour is this universal dimension to the Christian faith. As Christians, we can worship God anywhere. He is not bound by time and space. And we are connected to a universal, “catholic” church that extends through space and time.

We long to be back together, and yes we long to be under the roof of the church. Until then, we worship apart, but together, in spirit and in truth.