Whither the Church?
One of the great shocks to the system that the Corona Virus Pandemic and its consequent ‘lockdown’ has produced has been, for the first time in history, the inability of the Church to meet for the worship of God. Even in times of violent persecution, the Christian community has managed to gather, albeit in secret and in mortal peril, to celebrate the sacraments and to come together as a People, to recognize and identify with one another.
Although this time, when all but a few of us are deprived of the sacraments, has been a difficult and trying period, we have been heartened by the conviction that it will come to an end in due course and we will be able to resume life as normal. A vaccine will be found and, with it, a solution to our woes. Once more, we will be able to gather together in our churches.
However, the unpleasant suspicion remains that things may not be so easy. In the first place, it is by no means certain that a vaccine will be found. Even if it is, there is no consensus as to how long it may provide protection or as to how long it will take to achieve near-universal protection. And that is without even considering the moral dimension, for vaccines may well have ethical problems associated with them.
In both the Church and secular press, questions are being asked as to what this pandemic and its consequences will mean for the future life of the Church. If we can no longer gather together in ‘safety’ (always a relative term) for worship and the celebration of the sacraments, how will we be able to continue our Christian lives? It is not enough to say that we can all just stay at home and pray and read our bibles as individuals, for the Church has always known that, except in the rarest and most extreme of cases, this is never an acceptable solution, either practically or theologically. Nor, in the long term, is it a solution to hold that whilst we may attend worship in sanitized buildings, suitably socially distanced, only the celebrating priest will ever receive Holy Communion. In John 6, Christ makes it absolutely clear that we must receive his Body and Blood if we are to have life in us. Annual Communion, at the very least, is the non-negotiable privilege and duty of the Christian. Moreover, whilst it is conceivable that a valid baptism could be administered by properly trained lay people, what of the sacraments of confirmation and anointing of the sick? These absolutely require a bishop or a priest. Ordination likewise demands the ministry of a bishop.
There are suggestions, even being seriously broached by some priests, that the Church could effectively move on-line. During the present crisis, live-streamed and Zoom-based services have attracted large numbers and some are promoting such offerings as the way ahead for the Church in the future. Of course, such suggestions immediately raise all sorts of questions, not least of which is the question of accessibility. The average age of a member of the Church of England is approaching seventy and, although many people in that age group are both familiar and comfortable with technology, a great many are not and perhaps do not wish to become so, especially when the issue of cost is considered. On-line services are, by their very nature, exclusionary, ageist and elitist. They are also the antithesis of the Christian understanding of sacramentality and the nature of the human person – and indeed, of God. It may be that, for a short period of time and in emergency situation, they may be forced upon us, but this can surely only be until the Church gets its head round the new situation and gets its collective act together!
One of the reasons for which some may positively welcome the new situation is that it provides both the excuse and the opportunity to rid the Church of some, or even most, of its buildings. For some leaders, the ideal solution would be to retain a relatively few large buildings and close the rest, with the majority of worshippers either travelling from some distance to these ‘hub’ churches or choosing to join in worship and teaching online, with ever more slick presentation and televisual skills making up for the absence, for the majority, of a living communal experience. Lest those without technological skills are to be totally excluded, provision of more television-based services might become essential. It is suggested that, with the Church no longer having responsibility for a large number of historic buildings, a great deal of money could be saved and this could be invested in ‘modernizing’ the way the Church conducts its mission in the contemporary world. There are, however, considerable issues with this model of Church life and I will raise these in the continuation of this reflection.