DURING the coronavirus pandemic, much virtual ink has been spilt over how we can and cannot use our church buildings. The Church of England’s guidance that all of churches must remain locked has been painful for many.
In all the discussion about whether priests, in particular, are able to go into their church buildings or not, I worry that we are missing something important. Covid-19 has driven the people of God into the wilderness, and, in the wilderness, God calls us to worship together in “tents” and not “temples”.
In the Exodus story, when God’s people travel uncertainly and fearfully through the wilderness, God provides a powerful image of the pattern of worship to follow in the wilderness. Coming down the mountain and dwelling with God’s people, God does this by pitching his tent among them, and he assures his disoriented people that, in this tent, “my presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33.14).
In his seminal work on church ordering, Re-pitching the Tent (Canterbury Press, 2004), Richard Giles reminds us that, in coming down the mountain, God comes to be with his people, on the move, where they are. This insight, Giles argues, became hidden to us when we turned from meeting God in the tent, to placing God firmly and concretely in the life of the temple.
AS I look at the wonderfully different patterns of worship and meeting being developed during this time, I find myself seeing new tents — virtual and figurative — being pitched across the land as we travel through this corona wilderness together.
Pitching a tent for worship is something that we have some experience of in the parishes where I am vicar. For the past three years, we have been pitching “God’s Tent”, a new expression and pattern of worship. God’s Tent — a six-metre Bell-tent — is still in its early days, but quickly a new worshipping community has been born, living in sympathy to the worship that we ordinarily offered in our inherited temple-churches Sunday by Sunday.
Although we are unable to pitch God’s Tent at this time, there are insights from our experience which I hope will be an encouragement as we continue to pitch our own tent-churches in this wilderness.
The first is that tent worship is small. God’s Tent is small. At our “pitchings”, a varied group of between a dozen and 20 children and adults gathers each month. There, we reflect on a Bible story and explore that story in creation in different ways, such as a “Way of the Cross” scavenger hunt, or den-building, to learn about being wise rather than foolish builders. This is enjoyable, and creative, and small. If it were larger it would be wonderful, but it would not be God’s Tent.
Likewise, in our new-found corona wilderness, our experience of church is small. There are some examples of hundreds tuning in to online worship, but each day, as I say morning and evening prayer through our Facebook page, I am joined by “two or three”. I would imagine that that is the norm rather than the exception for many of us.
For those gathering for interactive prayer and fellowship in the virtual tents of meeting of Zoom and FaceTime, the size of those gatherings is limited by the possibilities of those platforms. In a contemporary church culture that is focused on growth and being “big”, in this wilderness we are being called to be small.
Second, worship in a tent is fragile. Worshipping, as we do, in a Bell-tent in Northumberland — where the wind blows and the rain falls — we find that worship is, literally, fragile. As we navigate through our current wilderness, we are getting used to that precariousness — whether in the constraints of streaming on rural-broadband, the limitation of the resources we have to worship with, or the fragility of our own humanity which this pandemic is forcing us all to face.
Finally, the God we encounter in God’s Tent is both immanent and elusive. Each pitching of God’s Tent, from arrival to departure, takes about two to three hours. This is an experience of God among us in the now of that place and time, but which then moves ahead of us waiting for the next time that we pitch God’s Tent.
AS WE worship amid the displacement of the pandemic, we experience immanence in the online communities that we are building held together with an elusiveness to what this will mean for the future that we are travelling into. No one knows what the future will hold, but, as we find God in our tent worship, we are reminded that, wherever we travel, God’s presence will go with us and give us rest.
During this wilderness time, we are all finding new ways to worship, new tents to pitch, as we navigate through this new and disorientating reality. But this will end, and, when it does, we will return to our cherished temple-churches with joy.
When this present Exodus ends, I hope and pray that we will not forget the vitality discovered by offering praise in our tent-churches. We should strive to carry with us wisdom received worshipping in the smallness, fragility, and elusiveness that comes when we encounter God in the worship of God’s tent pitched among us.
The Revd Dr Benjamin Carter is the Vicar of the Benefice of Haydon Bridge and Beltingham with Henshaw in the diocese of Newcastle. His book, God’s Tent Pitched Among Us: A new pattern for rural church mission, is published by Sacristy Press.