What Future for the Church?
A piece written for Wraysbury News Magazine in Spring 2021
St Michael's Church Horton: people before buildings?
One of the things that changed during the various lockdowns is that very much content went on line. It was a challenging experience. We had to learn how to Zoom, to livestream, to upload and download, and to become YouTube Creators! Virtual Church went out on Facebook and WhatsApp, and our clever members bravely ventured into the digital world and picked up dozens of new skills.
With all this came questions though. Are we still the Church if we are not meeting and worshipping together? For me there is a qualified yes. The feeling grew strongly on me, that the same God who is present with me on one side of the computer screen is also present with my sister or brother on the other side. The risen Lord Jesus is now in heaven and is not bound by the restrictions of time and space. All times and places – and people - are before Him, even under lockdown, in the great NOW of eternity.
For that reason I was open to celebrating communion over the internet, that is, I bless bread and wine at my end and people then share it with me using their own bread and wine at the other end. This was controversial. I was told to expect to face a disciplinary measure and that my theology was out because communion can only be valid if the people are physically gathered in the presence of the consecrating priest. However I believe that it is the Lord who is the host at His table, not the vicar: that it is He who consecrates bread and wine; that to focus only on material factors undermines participation in the heavenly life of Jesus and the spiritual sharing that is our joyful inheritance. Of course I would far rather that we could all meet and share communion together – but the question is what to do when this has been banned. I felt it was cruel to deny God’s people the comfort of His sacrament when they most needed it, and when I learned that people were just doing it anyway, were taking bread and wine together with the Bishop in the online communion put on by our Diocese itself, I applauded their good sense and got on with it.
The powers that be in the Church of England tell us that digital Church is here to stay, even when in-person church resumes. We are discovering new members online, people who turn up on digital services who we don’t see in our physical services. We also always have people who would love to be with us in church but can’t, because they have become frail or are unwell, or not able to drive any more, because they are away on business a lot or need to give 24-hour care to a family member. So we will go on connecting with people into the future, using whatever means are available, including digital ones. However there are all sorts of things to be worked through, for example: what is the quality of discipleship when we can engage simply by “liking” a post, or watching a video for a couple of minutes or even leaving it playing while we make a cup of tea? How do we foster a corporate identity with people we don’t physically meet? And what becomes of the Church of England’s parish system when we have viewers from the Midlands, Yorkshire, Scandinavia, Canada, the USA…? And how can clergy, already in many cases struggling with multiple churches, find the time and energy to take on an additional virtual church as well? When we give time to nurturing our digital congregation, how can it not be at the cost of reducing the time available to our physical parishioners? But for now we are just very grateful that technology has given the means to communicate with people at all…
As a vicar it is impossible not to be aware of the terrible human cost of the pandemic. There have been many funerals, some of them of people whose lives and contributions to our community are celebrated elsewhere in this issue. Not a few have been a great shock to the families concerned because those who died appeared to be in the pink of good health. It has been tragic to become aware of these sudden shocking bereavements, of people not allowed to visit a dying parent because of the restrictions, of deeply grieving people who have been excluded from funeral services because of strict limitations on attendance. For what it is worth your local churches have been labouring in prayer for those who are struggling with such heavy burdens. Good Friday has been especially poignant for me this year as we have considered afresh the sufferings of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, going through the terrible suffering which was the cost of His loving identification with us. If you have ever asked, “Where is God in all this?” - start here.
2020/21 was also really hard on those planning to be married. Long cherished plans had to be abandoned as weddings were either banned altogether or restricted to tiny numbers – who wants to celebrate what should be the best day of their life with just a handful of others present? Some faced the heartbreak of repeated postponements as hoped for relaxations of the rules did not materialise, others lost their incomes to Covid and had to cancel altogether. It was awful. At the present moment couples are cautiously starting to re-book. Let’s hope we have a summer of joyful weddings in store.
But the more we have missed each other, the gladder we have been to come back together and meet once more in person. Our churches finally resumed Sunday worship before Easter. Although our instincts were to shout from the rooftops that we are back in business at last, we had to keep a low profile because we were still under restrictions on numbers and we didn’t want to find ourselves forced to turn people away. We had to book in, wear masks, keep social distance, forego wine in communion, and perhaps the most missed, no congregational singing (though we were allowed a choir of up to three, who really lifted our hearts.) It’s all been worth it for the sheer happiness of being together again.
So if the church were to learn anything from these disturbing times, I hope it would be to become a more people-centred, open-hearted and compassionate Church, more aware and more supportive of one another in our struggles. This is surely what the Lord who came to share our flesh and blood, our joys and our sufferings, wants for us. Perhaps we lose sight of His goals when we are preoccupied with our busy programmes, our committees, our overstressed and anxious lives. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to make us stop and ask ourselves what is it that truly matters. “Love God and love your neighbour,” said Jesus.
To this end I share with you the following notice, which I found pinned up in a church in a little country village in Hampshire, back in distant times when holidays were still allowed:
Jesus is the Head, not the Bishop, not the Vicar, not the Church Council or the people – but Jesus Christ.
All are very welcome through the doors of His house. When you come, forgive the human weaknesses of the people you will find here: it is Jesus Christ who waits to greet you.
Especially welcome are the little children, the sick, the lonely, the unloved, the weak, the confused, the overstressed, the hurting, the worried, the anxious, the abandoned, those whose friendships and marriages have broken, those who are searching for more meaning, and those who cannot understand these difficult times. This is your home. Christ awaits your coming.
Also welcome are the proud, the arrogant, the cynical, the critical and the egocentric, those who are independent, those who are strong and feel they need no help. Don’t kid yourself, your home is here also - you must admit it eventually!
We will not ask for your money. We will not give you a job to do. We will not ask you to hold a coffee morning to raise funds. We will not ask you to restore a building.
We will meet with Jesus Christ and worship God together. We will meet each other’s needs and learn to understand each other. We will shed the burden of all the pretence in our lives and take the risk of being humble and vulnerable.
That’s the kind of Church I would like to belong to.