Did closing the churches mark a retreat of the Church from public life?

Sacred space is important. We know that those liminal, ‘thin’ places where God’s presence can be keenly felt are important: St. Cuthbert’s Shrine in Durham (where I always went to say my daily office when I was studying there), the Shrine Church in Walsingham, before the Blessed Sacrament (anywhere, frankly). Feel free to add your own.

In the mid-lockdown inevitable backlash, there are a flurry of critics from Angela Tilby to +Peter Selby and Marcus Walker expressing their frustration that the sacred space of churches should not have been closed for public safety, and that clergy shuld have had special status as keyworkers and that to withdraw to the Studies of Vicarages and the internet was an abrogation of our responsibility to the nation and to the faith.

Hold on a moment.

Did I and my colleagues take a 10-week holiday then? Did we shut up shop and finally get round to tackling that book by Teilhard de Chardin that we have had on our shelves since ordination? Or perhaps, have we spent more time, energy and effort in trying to maintain community, outreach and contact through a variety of digital means; only to be berated in text form.

Simon Cuff cites  Meg Warner who writes, for example that the “most pressing instance of public absentia in the face of disaster is the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior bishops to close Church of England churches during the Covid-19 pandemic.” She regrets that what the Church of England “has to offer, the official position concedes, is markedly less than that offered by hospitals and supermarkets, off-licences, take-away restaurants, post offices, banks, public transport, and DIY stores. It does not consider itself and its ministry to be ‘essential.’”

From American, Korean and German experience, Churches are one of the focal points of infectious spread: singing sends aerosolised viruses into the air and simply bringing people into a building either collectively, or individually if we were to open them for prayer would have required them to be cleaned and disinfected at a scale which most volunteer-staffed churches up and down the nation could not manage. To even enter a Church requires the handling of a big old iron handle and a contact risk from a virus that is now thought to last for up to five days on a non-porous surface. Most churches are attended and looked after by people over 70 – the highest risk category and speaking for our community here in Plymouth it is a risk which I am simply not prepared to take, for the sake of my parishioners or for the general public.

I myself, with pre-existing conditions, am in a higher-risk category and so I am limited as to what I can do. Some people still call me ‘young clergy’ and I am in my 50s! The Church of England is kept afloat by NSMs and Retired Clergy largely older than me. In their decision to close the buildings, I believe that the Archbishops sought to protect people like me and those whom I serve by asking me to serve them in new, different ways.

And that is, I feel, the nub of it, because many involved in the life of the Church, are inherently small-c conservative. This is not a political conservativism, but a world-view of preservation, of heritage and of protection of ‘life-as-we-know-it‘. The ancient role of the Established Church was one of power and influence, often subtle but forceful, and controlling. The buildings were for most of English history the one focal point of a community, and vicar a totem of that but as was pointed out in Is it just me or is everything shit?

“The vicar isn’t the focal point of a local community anymore, it’s more likely to be that chirpy girl on the till at Tesco’s”

To ask that innately conservative world-view to do something different, rather than claim special status – key worker status – is hugely challenging to it, and they didn’t like it. On an Estate on the outskirts of Plymouth, claims to special power doesn’t really wash.

So my key question is did the Church withdraw?, My own experience in this community is most definitely not. We did it differently, within the framework of our Spiritual norms, with a special emphasis on the Eucharist, and we used a variety of tools available to us, from the Internet to the telephone, where those without the internet can dial in and listen to worship.

The real work of the Church does not occur in the corridors of power, and I suggest it never should, but in the Estates of this land, in the small communities of faith and pockets of worship, in the interpersonal and the relational. THAT is what the Church has been busy doing, and I think doing it authentically. It’s probably not slick, to the quality of a Hillsong or an HTB event, and the wrong button may be pressed, the camera dropped and the signal lost on occasion (I’ve done all of these in the last 10 weeks) but then again, a Mass in one of my Churches isn’t perfect either, because we are human beings and the vicar messes it up quite often or the organist plays the offetory hymn instead of the gradual – we are human and all human worship this side of heaven will always fall short of Revelation 5-7 but it has been no less sincere and has spoken of the Church being alongside the community it serves.

We have all shared lockdown. I can’t have distributed Home Communion to my people, I can’t have visited them by virtue of my key-worker status because I had to share in the deprivation of contact for the sake of the health of others. It was not my job to be some kind of Coronavirus-Mary in this Community, but to find new ways of helping people tap into God.

And it has drawn in others. Others who wouldn’t or couldn’t engage with the church outside of lockdown: the disabled, the housebound, those struggling with childcare on a Sunday morning, those in Shiftwork and the unchurched.

But that isn’t the glory of the Church of England to the mind of many. To those of us at the edge of mission: where God meets people is precisely that. This is the Glory of the Church, in its ministry and witness. This is why the Archbishop of Canterbury has been doing Chaplaincy at S. Thomas’ Hospital across the road. This is where the work of the Church is at its best.

Those who hanker for the public building are in danger of treating the sacred space as the Golden Calf. The Tabernacle of the Lord was sacred only because of the presence of God whose presence could be felt keenly there. I also suspect that they don’t also hold the responsibility for an ancient (often Grade-I listed) building crumbling away and whilst beautful is expensive to maintain and often more of a headache and a financial burden than a gift. If you had to read the Quinquennial Report, your fondness for a 13th-Century building can quickly pale.

I will delight, however, when it is safe to reopen for public worship and private prayer. I will be overjoyed and fulfilled when I can celebrate the Mass in these special liminal spaces where prayer has been soaked into the (crumbling) limestone walls over generations, when my confession can be heard again and I can offer that sacrament again to others. But not yet, not until it is safe.

The buildings may have been closed, but the Church has been very much open.