ON 18 March, I promised my congregation and the local community three things: that we were not closed; that we would not allow anyone to go hungry; and that Christ would rise on Easter Day.
I reported in my YouTube sermon on 12 April that one third of those things had happened (a triumph that I can hardly take credit for). I also reported that, during Holy Week, we had opened a foodbank, given out 36 parcels, and served 32 hot meals. I told my online worshippers that we had raised nearly £3000 to support the mutual-aid group that had grown up, and that we were right in the middle of a network of 250 volunteers who had stepped forward to help their community.
The church was very much alive and open (even though the building was shut), and we had kept our promise, and stopped people going hungry. This was all supposed to be a good-news story to tell the viewers about how the church had risen to the challenges of Covid-19, and been there for people when they felt that so many had given up on them. And yet I feel like a failure.
The problem was, only six people watched the video. One of those viewers would have been my fiancé, and I think that my mum probably saw it, too. So, that leaves four. And they would have been dedicated members of my congregation, who would have gained something from it; but it was hardly a great work of evangelism. In fact, these same dedicated members are the ones leading live compline three nights a week.
Most of my congregation do not have the internet. One pointed out, when I offered to help her on to YouTube, that she had managed to be a Christian for 75 years without YouTube; so she probably didn’t need it now. Every communication from the diocese and national Church, however, steers me towards this time-consuming and fruitless task, because that, I am told, is the best way to respond to this crisis: to stream worship from my study and hope that maybe my mum might start coming to church.
I SIMPLY do not have the time or the inclination to invest in this narrative. I absolutely hold to the government advice that we must stay at home as much as we can, and limit social distancing, and I believe that the decision to close church buildings for worship was the right (and lawful) one (News, 27 March).
The way that the C of E has responded to that advice, however, utterly betrays how middle-class its interests have become. Staying at home is wonderful — when you have a home, with electricity, and food, and a job, and access to the internet, and are computer-literate, and, ideally, have a landline to avoid some hefty mobile call charges. I flicked with dismay through the C of E Twitter feed to see how every post backed this view up — the assumption that everybody is in a safe and comfortable home setting, and, therefore, the only need to be met is a spiritual one.
It is not the most pressing need that I have met with, though. During the past few weeks, my doorstep has become a foodbank, a job centre, a library, a charity shop, and a doctor’s surgery. I have peeled filthy trousers from a weeping leg ulcer and dressed the wound. I have phoned the Universal Credit hotline to find out why someone has been sanctioned for not looking for work. I have topped up phones, bought electricity credit, rummaged around for old bedsheets, and responded to the constant calls on the phone and at the door, which often start with the words “I didn’t know where else to turn.”
I have not been going out to find people: they come to the church. It has been relentless, but, in every other circumstance, I would feel that, in doing any of these things, I was just doing my job. This time, however, I feel as if I’m doing the wrong thing, that I’m disobeying orders, and that opening my soup kitchen on Easter Day could get a Clergy Discipline Measure thrown my way (I don’t think for a minute my Bishop would, but that’s not the point).
I FEEL that feeding the poor and caring for the sick — not remotely, or by donation, but in the flesh — is something to be ashamed of and is frowned on. It feels like work that is lonely and unsupported, and that, despite its having a possible evangelistic reach of 350 new people, community-organising and practical action is not the evangelism that the C of E wants me to do.
I am sure that I am not alone. Up and down the country, I see pictures from friends engaged in exactly this sort of work, and trying to pay the parish share from a plummeting income.
So little of this work, this genuinely Kingdom good news, is reflected — or, at times even acknowledged — through official channels. But I suspect that we’ll all carry on. They, like me, cannot dream of putting a notice on their church door that says “No food here, but morning prayer is online.”
The Revd Alice Whalley is the Vicar of St John’s, Brownswood Park, in London diocese.