When catching a virus changes the church.

Off and on these last few weeks, I’ve been pondering my own and others’ attitude to locked down churches. I have no idea how representative my Twitter stream is, but I see some very diverse, often vehement, views expressed there. Such views are also well represented elsewhere online, for example on the Thinking Anglicans blog.

Some of the strongest views come from Anglican clergy in relation to the archbishops’ guidance (de jure) or instruction (de facto) that clergy may not offer public prayer in church. All livestreams must come from the home, not the church building. The Archbishop of Canterbury set the example at Easter by streaming from his own kitchen. (I saw almost no debate about whether he did this in ignorance, defiance or creative interpretation of the law – Canon B41 – which seems to mandate the use of a chapel where a clerical residence has one.)

cartoon by Dave Walker of Cartoon Church.

What I want to do in this short post is take a step back from those exchanges and muse out loud on a couple of thoughts that have been passing through my somewhat confused brain. It seems to me that Anglican responses to the coronavirus crisis highlight some issues about our present direction of travel as a church.

The first is over the question of vicarious religion: the priest or congregation exercising their faith on behalf of the wider community. For a very long time, often in over-romanticised ways, Anglican clergy in particular have made much of the idea of praying on behalf the parish: articulating the faith and prayers of this place, this community to God. This chimes (so to speak) with the practice enjoined in Canon B11, of tolling the bell to tell the parish such prayer is being offered. Vicarious religion makes much of a shared space, a sacred place owned by the community, even if that building is only or primarily accessible by video link.

The Church of England’s response to the coronavirus has taken as its mantra “the building is closed but the church is open.” People comfort one another by reminding themselves that “the church is people, not buildings.” I would suggest it’s always more complicated than that, and culturally embedded churches (whether legally established or not) are in large part embedded through their buildings. It is the church building that enables them in many respects to be the church of (and not just for) those who rarely if ever attend.

As a priest, I (obviously, I hope) want to encourage people into more active following of Jesus, and seek to fan flames of faith into life where the opportunity arises. However, it seems to me that we are largely becoming a church that only thinks of its active, participating, ministering members when making decisions, and no longer sees even tenuously connected hangers-on as in any real sense belonging to the very mixed body of the church on earth. Being church, rather than going to church, is premised on a rather more self-conscious discipleship than establishment has historically worked with.

The speed at which we have officially chosen to close the church door even on streamed prayers of the priest alone, and instead delight in domestic and online church suggests something of how far down that road we have travelled. Speaking personally, I myself feel somewhat excluded from a domestic celebration where another Anglican priest presides over a physical congregation of spouse and children, while thanking me and whoever for joining them. What exactly is it I am joining in, and whose Eucharist is it? By contrast, on the level playing field of a Roman Catholic mass in church, where I and everyone except the celebrant can only share a spiritual communion, I feel a somewhat greater sense of participation.

[I add, as an aside, that as a priest without a parish and community on whose behalf to celebrate the Eucharist, I have been attending virtual Eucharists, rather than treat the Eucharist as something to which I could choose to have privileged access at home. That would, I think, be to run the risk of making it my rather than the church’s celebration.]

Running alongside this question about buildings is a rather more doctrinal one about the Eucharist. Here as nowhere else I am reminded that Anglicanism is a running argument in pursuit of an identity. What is contested changes somewhat from one generation to another, but the character of the Church of England has always been a matter of disagreement. Anglicanism was a contest long before it became a concept.

In the various comments about “fasting from the sacraments”, to “providing bread and wine for my people,” to promoting the value of spiritual communion, when only the priest can receive sacramental communion, social media is filled by the squabble of ecclesiological cats refusing to be herded into the litter tray. Plus ça change.

One of the divisions that is laid bare relates back to some of what I’ve been thinking about vicarious religion. It is between conceptions of a church service as something done primarily for God, and one of its being primarily for the worshippers’ benefit. In sacramental terms, that maps largely onto conceiving of the Eucharist either as offering or as communion. Pretty much from the beginning of the church, from the interpretation of Jesus’ words at the last supper onwards, both ideas are present in Christian language about eucharistic praying, and, in my view, we need to be attentive to both today.

One contest bequeathed us by the Reformation is whether the communion language should be allowed to drive out the language of sacrifice. What the present Covid19 crisis has done, pretty much for the first time in the history of the Church of England, is put us in a situation where the language of offering works rather better for actual practice than the language of communion. An implicit theology of offering seems in many quarters, not least the archiepiscopal guidance, to be taking some kind of primacy over that of reception. In giving official sanction for the priest to celebrate without a physically present congregation, the archbishops have to some extent affirmed a way of performing ordained priesthood that has – to the best of my knowledge – never before been so encouraged.

People tuning in online to a celebration of the Eucharist participate in a ritual being carried out before God, which would quite evidently be going on with or without their participation. Contextually, there is a more obvious stress on this as the priest making a perpetual memory before God of Christ’s self-offering, than there is on the equality of congregational participation in the benefits of Christ’s passion.

Now some of those who object to this kind of approach do so as those who hold strongly Reformed views of the sacraments. That theological debate will run and run, and I’m not particularly interested in engaging it here. What will be interesting to see is whether the present archiepiscopally blessed and technologically re-framed mass at which only the priest communicates changes the terms of that particular debate in the less theologically partisan segments of the church.

In a rather less rarefied atmosphere somewhere nearer the parochial ground most of us live on, others are simply missing the human connection. Others again, ordained and lay, are missing the familiar building (on which see above) and all its symbolic freight and emotional resonance. There are also those, however, who seem to me to be responding negatively because we are all being brought up short by a way of attending the Eucharist that is much less obviously geared to the “what is this doing for me?” approach.

There is some opportunity here, it seems to me, to remind ourselves of things we are losing from our corporate memory, such as the idea of worship being “meet, right and our bounden duty” that we offer to God. It is not simply about mine and our communion in which we all minister to one another. Whatever else the present practice does, it encourages us to explore again what it might mean to make a perpetual memory of Christ’s self-giving. It invites us to consider how Christ offers us with the whole world to the Father, in such a way we might bring ourselves and our communities with us before God, united to Christ’s self-offering.

Then we might be back, in a roundabout way, to re-evaluating vicarious religion, and perhaps, that there’s still something important to hold onto about being a mixed church where not everyone is a fervently true believer, and some of us pray on behalf of those others of us who are presently struggling – for whatever reasons of grief, pain, doubt or sin – so to do. We do what we do with and for God and the world, and not simply for the church and ourselves.