A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter - 10th May 2020
It is eight weeks today since our congregations last joined together to worship in our three churches and seven weeks since the last service in any of our churches on Mothering Sunday. Since then, our worship has been confined to our homes. From next Sunday, we will be streaming Sunday services from St Dunstan’s rather than my dining room, although there will only be two of us there. Change is going to be slow and a return to anything like normality is likely to take many months.
How has this experience of church been for you? What have we lost? What have we gained? We’ve lost much of our sense of togetherness; the opportunity to share face to face; the regular habit of receiving communion; our connection with our buildings, often focal points of our faith. But we have gained as well. We’ve learned that technology can be beneficial; we’ve kept in touch with people in different ways; some of our relationships have grown. We’ve had the chance to experience different approaches to worship, from the much more relaxed format of this service, to the children’s service we’ll be holding later on this morning. And I hope that we’ve learned that faith is about so much more than just buildings. There is plenty here in our experiences for us to reflect on – and, indeed, we will be doing so in the last of our series of online conversations. There are strong images in our faith of wilderness, exile, dislocation, and isolation which can help guide us.
The closure of our churches, though, has generated plenty of strong feelings. It is, after all, a step beyond the government’s position. On Easter Day, Justin Welby, somewhat muddied the waters by stating that these were not instructions, but guidance. So, on the second Sunday of Easter, the Reverend Marcus Walker, Vicar of St Bartholomew in the Great near the Barbican and St Bart’s Hospital, defied the archbishops and bishops and began streaming services from his church. Since then, some clergy have been making their disagreement abundantly clear. Last week, some 500 clergy and politicians signed a letter in the Times calling for priests to be allowed to use church buildings again. Others have responded in equally forceful ways. Surely there have been more pressing things for clergy to be worrying about at this time than whether services are streamed from homes or from churches?
I must stress that I thoroughly support the decisions that have been made – tough decisions made in tough circumstances. I am perfectly content streaming services from my dining room, although it will be good to be able to do this from church next week. However important our buildings might be, faith is so much more than bricks and mortar. We should be able to adapt to life without them.
Amongst all the shouting, there is something important going on here. Last week, Bishop Peter Selby, the retired bishop of Worcester and a former Bishop of Kingston, published an article entitled, ‘Is Anglicanism Going Private?’ Whilst noting the creative work going on in the digital realm, the removal of the centre of worship from the public church building to the private home represents a shrinking away by the Church from its place in the public arena. He writes, ‘that removal of Holy Week and Easter to the domestic realm reflects, without any element of challenge, faith becoming a private matter and our public life belonging to be the realm of practical secularity.’ Our closed doors are deeply symbolic of the Church’s current place in public life. We have shut our doors. Symbolically, we have nothing to say to this pandemic.
It is important not to over generalise. Yes, of course there is some practical action going on. There are churches who host foodbanks, who work in partnership with organisations offering meaningful and practical help, who have the facilities to cook meals for the vulnerable and so on. And most parishes have made a point of staying in touch with people in new and different ways. My particular concern, though, is that the Church has been largely and tellingly absent from the national debate around Coronavirus. If you walk around our community in Cheam, the dominant imagery you will find in people’s windows, chalked on pavements, and on bunting is that of rainbows and the blue of the NHS logo. You don’t need to look very far to see that people are not placing their hope in anything to do with Church. The Thursday night clapping for carers has far more draw than the church bell. Perhaps the NHS has become our country’s new religion? It seems to reflect our national values and aspirations far more than the Church.
Yet it is not as if our faith has nothing to say to the pandemic. Our faith of the radical reversal, in which the first are last and the last first, should draw us towards a severe critique of what is going on behind the headlines and government briefings. Those who are poorer are dying at double the rate of those who are wealthy. Those from black, Asian, and minority backgrounds are over-represented in the death toll. Use of food banks has almost doubled. There has been an horrific surge in incidents of domestic violence. Vulnerable families are simply not receiving the support from schools and social services they normally would. Our health service and social care systems are stretched beyond their limits through neglect. What has our church got to say on this? Other than a handful of exceptions, the silence is palpable.
Moreover, the most recent church-related headlines seem to be focused not on these issues, but on the number of people tuning into its new digital services. It feels as if chasing the number of likes and views for services on our various digital platforms is worth more than anything else. There was a particular pride that 6,000 people called the ‘Daily Hope’ free phoneline to listen its hymns and prayers on its first day. Yes, of course streaming services like this is important. It is a way of worshipping in circumstances which are very difficult. And it is good to know that people are accessing our worship and that we’re not just speaking into the ether. But church is about so much more than just this. It’s about how change is affected through the witness that we bring. Change which brings into reality the radically reversed values of God’s kingdom. We should be saying so much more.
The root of the problem with our closed church doors is that they bring those of us who are committed to our churches face to face with the reality of the place of faith in society today. A place in which faith is broadly a matter for personal preference, reduced to our private lives, and sidelined from the public square. We no longer have the impact and influence on society as we once had. Sometimes, our church buildings can feel as if they are the last solid presence we have in our communities. To see their doors closed and the worship that took place in them moved to the domestic environment gives us a vision of what the future might hold. It is no wonder that some don’t like this and are desperate to get back in. But I can’t help but feel that their energy is more than somewhat misplaced. I end with a quotation from Tomás Halík, a Czech professor of sociology at Charles University in Prague, and a Roman Catholic priest:
‘Maybe this time of empty church buildings symbolically exposes the churches’ hidden emptiness and their possible future unless they make a serious attempt to show the world a completely different face of Christianity. We have thought too much about converting the world and less about converting ourselves: not simply improvement, but a radical change from a static “being Christians” to dynamic “becoming Christians”.’