Following the announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK starting this coming Thursday, the thoughts of church leaders, and religious leaders more broadly, have turned to how this will affect the live worship of their congregations. The published government guidance is not entirely clear on this point, though it seems to point to the end of gathered worship and its replacement by services broadcast by priests from church buildings (the guidance is also clear that buildings remain open for private prayer).
I believe that churches, and other places of worship, should stay open throughout the second lockdown.
Some might be surprised to hear me say this.
After all, in two previous blog posts on the subject (here and here), I took a more optimistic view of church closures. I was prepared, at that point, to give the Church of England’s leadership the benefit of the doubt given the novelty of the virus and, as I explored, the theological reasons for home worship (I did, however, register my frustration at the prohibition of clergy entering church buildings to film worship).
I am no longer convinced that my reasons hold in the current situation. I want to explain why I think this, why I have changed my mind.
This Sunday’s lectionary features the tribute passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and ends with Jesus’s famous words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I wrote a piece a few years back for Currents in Biblical Research which summarised the four main ways that contemporary commentators have read this saying. You can read the article for free, here.
Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Tribute Money (part of triptych) 1908, (Wikiart)
The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.
Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.
The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.
As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.
On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.
On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).
I’ve come back to many passages of the book. But there’s one I come back to the most:
I won’t pretend there isn’t something scandalous about his advice. Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God—that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, the the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call “the world”. But what I hope you’ll hear in this is not a solution or an answer, not merely a dogmatic claim or demand. For Augustine, this was a hard-fought epiphany that emerged after trying everything else, after a long time on the road, at the end of his rope. The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land’. It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home’.
In a recent Saeculum Short, I wrote about how the future of the West politically might not be in the West but in places fighting for democracy and the foundational values of Western civilisation. Minsk and Hong Kong are major exhibits of this phenomenon and, I suggested, call forth the good in Westerners by reminding us of what we have stood and should stand for and what we could be.
I have since recalled that similar arguments have been made regarding the Church.
Just as the future of the West politically lies elsewhere, so too does its Christian identity rely on the growth and vitality of the Church in other parts of the world.
The state of the Church in the West is complex, but it’s fair to say that it is broadly in decline, and has been for quite a while. At the same time, the number of those committing to being followers of Christ has grown exponentially in corners of Asia and Africa, often under intense persecution. Fascinatingly, where growth is occurring in parts of the West, it is often among diaspora communities. Take, for instance, the movement of African pentecostal churches in urban centres in the UK (a phenomenon often referred to as “reverse mission”). Of course, the West and Christianity are not one and the same thing. Indeed, Christianity is not even a western religion. And yet, Christianity has been foundational to Western identity and the West has for a long time been a key centre of the Christian faith.
In this post, I want to suggest that the loss of Christian identity in the West is partly linked to the decline of Western consciousness. The reverse, I think, is also true: the decline of the West is partly the result of the decline of a vital Christian faith, though in this post I will focus on the former.
I recall reading somewhere (it might have been in Spurgeon, or perhaps someone else) that the Psalms are not merely to be read but sung. The Lord, Mark’s Gospel tells us, sang a song with his disciples before he went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Church traditions (and Jewish traditions to this day) throughout the ages have sung versions of the Psalms in their liturgies.
The sung version of the Psalms I grew up with were from Church of Scotland Minister Ian White. My parents took Ian White LPs and tapes with them when they worked overseas in Nigeria and played them often at home when my brother and I were growing up. When I read certain Psalms now, I hear Ian White’s renditions of them. Singing the Psalms has meant that the words have become embedded in my memory.
I have since expanded my list of sung versions of the Psalms, though I come back to Ian White’s version frequently. I compile and share this list of some of the Psalms which are dear to me and which, when I read I them, immediately recall sung versions. Some of the versions are choral, some are contemporary, some are old hymns. Some, like CH Lloyd’s Psalm 137 I only heard this year around the time of the remembrance of the Shoah. I hope to add to the list over time. Please feel free to add your favourites in the comments.
“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them”—Genesis 42:7
“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people”—Exodus 2:11
My aim in this series on Christianity and tribalism is twofold:
to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits
2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves.
This first post unfolds the first of these two goals—the rehabilitation of the tribe in our collective imaginations.
We Cannot and Should Not Get Rid of Tribes
My main point is that we cannot get rid of tribes and, even if we could, we shouldn’t. Let me explain each of these points.