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Angela Tilby: The C of E has become member-only

08 May 2020

Church Times

The padlocked gate outside Southwark Cathedral

The padlocked gate outside Southwark Cathedral

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.

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