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.