Churches Should Stay Open

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.

Let me try and clearly state what it is that I think. The church’s primary role is to lead people to salvation through Christ. Of course, this one goal has many offshoots—as many and as varied as life itself—including food banks, schooling and education and so on. But it performs this mission primarily through offering the Word and Sacrament, through preaching and the Eucharist. If these two gifts—gifts of God to the Church, and through the Church to the world—are not part of the picture, then the Church is merely one social club among many. It would be carrying out vital services to be sure. And it might even claim to be doing so having been inspired by the gifts of Word and Sacrament. But if the church is not being fed weekly on the Word and Sacrament, its service in the world loses its vitality. Simply put, the Word and Sacrament are fundamental to what makes the Church the Church. 

But why must these be offered in person? This is the question that the coronavirus, with its ethic of love through apartness, has raised. 

The thing about Word and Sacrament is that they are deeply embodied. They are to do with human bodies, the body of Christ himself and his Church. We stand for the reading of the Gospel. The preacher faces us and uses his/her body to engage the congregation. When we come to share communion, we hear these words:

The Eucharistic liturgy explicitly and unavoidably emphasises the bodily nature of what we participate in: Christ’s body, the bread “which earth has given and human hands have made”, and his blood, the wine, the “fruit of the vine and work of human hands”. The very gift of the Sacraments is the work of God, of course, but God is always at work among, in and through his creation. The elements are truly the gifts of God, and the work of human hands.

Simply put, I have come to the view that the church exists in flesh and blood. It has been interesting to see how the issue of where churches hold services at this time—online or with congregants gathered in person in the church building—has roughly fallen down lines of churchmanship and interdenominational preferences. My own ecclesial leanings are fairly low down the candle—I would place myself within the liturgical and Reformed wing of the Church of England. So, I find myself most at home with the language of the BCP in Morning Prayer or choral Evensong. 

My strong impression, and no doubt there are exceptions and complicating factors at play here, is that those congregations that see the Church’s mission as offering Christ through Word and Sacrament have sought to open their doors at every legal opportunity. In fact, it is those denominations that particularly see the Sacrament itself as the point of the Church that opened first, and that are now, rightly to my mind, putting pressure on the government to allow religious communities to meet together in-person (see here and here).

I struggle to see the Sacrament as being the only goal of the church—especially if it is divorced from the Ministry of the Word. But it is not difficult to see how a strong theology of Sacrament and Word, rooted as they must be in a particular place and necessarily involving human bodies, leads to strong calls for public in-person worship to continue. Virtual services are a last resort for those shielding and are only ever a substitute for being gathered together bodily. 

But wouldn’t every denomination claim to value Word and Sacrament? We need to be more specific here—the devil is in the detail. With the Sacrament, if communion/Eucharist/mass is only remembrance or memorial, then it is natural for it to be transplanted to the techno-sphere. But if Christ is really and truly present, then it means the whole world for believers to receive his flesh and blood in their own flesh and blood (that is, in person). You simply have to be there*.

Priest Timothy Pelc of St Ambrose Church in Detroit, shoots holy water from a toy water gun (photo credit:  Jim West/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock)

With the Word, if preaching is purely about imparting information, a data download for disembodied disciples, then the church service can easily take to Zoom, Facebook or some other online platform. But if the preaching of the Word is the proclamation of Christ, a re-enactment or performance (in the best sense of the term) of the gospel, where the priest’s gestures, tone of voice (cracking with emotion, then lowering to a whisper for dramatic effect), their body language, posture and eye contact convey exhortation, encouragement, challenge, even rebuke—if all of this is true, as I think it is, then being present in flesh and blood makes all the difference. You simply have to be there.

In the end, there is only so long our bodies and souls can endure with virtual services. And while the Prime Minister has announced that the second lockdown will only last a month, there have been signals from members of cabinet that it could last longer, as “the facts” emerge. I could, at a push, see churches, and society more broadly, opening for Christmas before shutting down again afterwards—though as my wife reminded me today, Easter wasn’t spared. The difference, of course, is that Christmas is seen as a commercial holiday which might, ironically, mean that things open for a limited time over the festive season. 

Whatever the length of this lockdown turns out to be, though, my strong hope is that those in the Church of England hierarchy follow certain Cardinals in the Catholic Church in England and Wales by putting strong pressure on the government and asking them to allow churches to meet for worship. I can understand the reasons for the current silence among Anglican leaders on this front—among other things, an outbreak at a church would raise media hysteria to fever-pitch. But as Catholic leaders Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon have stressed, no evidence has been offered that churches spread the virus any more than schools or universities for example. In fact, I suspect that there is no comparison between Covid cases in churches and universities (or pubs or restaurants, for that matter). My evidence is anecdotal, admittedly, but having worshipped in person at my local church, I have found that the rules are followed with extreme care—everyone wears face coverings, hands are fastidiously washed with sanitiser upon entrance and by the priest when distributing communion, the numbers of congregants is kept within the legal limits, and social distancing is maintained. I don’t think I could name anywhere more “Covid compliant” than church. 

If we let them, crises can have a way of cutting through to our truest intentions, laying bare our deepest thoughts and motives. I sense the coronavirus is having a similar effect, forcing us to ask: What is Church for? In my own moment of clarity, I have come to the firm conviction that the Church’s primary aim is to offer salvation in Christ through Word and Sacrament. This is a fundamentally embodied set of activities. And that is why churches should remain open. 

*Those who cannot receive the sacrament at gathered worship receive it from the vicar or priest by visitation.

Image Credit: David Eucharistia (via Pexels)

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