ON SUNDAY, I took part in a live-streamed eucharist from home. It all took a tremendous amount of time, furniture-removal, and rehearsal. Although the performer in me enjoyed the experience, I was left feeling ambivalent about the whole thing.
It would have been so much simpler for a priest to have live-streamed the eucharist from the cathedral over the road. It is absurd to be spending hours creating novel acts of worship from homes while churches are locked and silent.
It goes back, of course, to the instruction issued by the Archbishops and Bishops after the beginning of the lockdown (News, 27 March). As Bishop Peter Selby suggested in an article in The Tablet last week, the result, in effect, has been to “privatise” the Church of England — achieving what the National Secular Society has failed to do in years of earnest campaigning.
How trite has been the little trope that “The Church is people, not buildings,” which totally misses the point about the public and institutional nature of the Church. We
are now a domestic, members-only Church, with nothing to say to the nation about death, sacrifice, or charity, and nothing to plead before God on behalf of us all.
What we are left with is what the narrator in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India describes as “poor little talkative Christianity”, delighted with itself for having mastered Zoom meetings, and talking excitedly about new mission opportunities, while refusing, in some cases, “for safety reasons”, even to put the church notices through the doors of those who have no access to the internet. There are many priests, of course, who have battled their way through this, still finding ways to connect with the needy and vulnerable — even, sometimes, and with a bad conscience, creeping into their churches to pray.
I can only believe that the Archbishops came under huge pressure from the Government to go beyond its own guidelines, in the hope that it would prevent lunatic faith groups’ continuing to meet while claiming that God would protect them. The Archbishops unnecessarily — and, in my view, wrongly — agreed, and the Bishops obeyed.
Any relaxing of this policy will have to be accompanied by serious reflection on the damage that has been done. Worship in the home has its place, but the church is more than domestic space: it is common ground.
So much for clergy as key workers. When the postman, the bus driver, not to mention health workers, put themselves at risk for Christian values and the common good, the Church’s position looks uncomfortably like moral cowardice. Even when the Bishops agree to a limited reopening of some churches, I don’t think this will be forgotten.
Editor’s note: this column was written before it was announced that the guidance banning clergy from entering their churches may be modified by individual dioceses.