By Ephraim Radner

The COVID-19 virus has churches scrambling. In many parts of the world, including North America, many churches have been closed to public worship. Bishops and clergy have been furiously sending out emails and instructions, plotting responses and strategizing about the days ahead. Lists of “10 Things To Do in Your Congregation” are making the rounds. From my observations, I can generalize about elements in these responses. There are outliers, of course, but not that many.

The first thing I see is the insistent call to comfort and be comforting. People are afraid and uncertain, we are told, and they need to be loved and assured. These directives are aimed mostly at clergy, but filter down from them: you can’t hug anybody anymore physically, but you should try to do it in other ways, maybe even “virtually.” Call people up; create email chains; issue little daily meditations of warmth and security. This falls into a kind of “motherly” mode. And with it comes another motherly aspect, which is the disciplinary call to behave: wash your hands; don’t get too close; obey the rules; remember that other people count; be kind; be responsible. All this represents an almost fierce maternalization of the church and especially of her leadership.

The second aspect of our moment’s ecclesial response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a corollary of the first. If bishop and clergy all become “Mom,” everybody else becomes “the kids.” Thus, with the church’s maternalization of leadership comes the Christian people’s infantilization. They’re scared, worried, need direction and hand-holding (well, only metaphorically). They also need to be told how to behave, how to be nice to others, how to organize their time well.


To be sure, the church as mother and Christians as infants is a well-worn trope. Still, St. Paul and other New Testament writers generally see the “Christian-as-babe” negatively, a mark of immaturity and, however true, something that demands overcoming through learning and growing (1 Cor. 3:1; 14:22; Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:12-13). Paul as “mother” (Gal. 4:19) or even “father” (1 Thess. 2:11; 1 Cor. 4:14) — though fathers are pretty much absent in the metaphors of the present moment — relates to his churches as a yearning parent who aims, not only at their children’s comfort, but especially at their mature witness. Even where the characterization of the Church as a child is less harsh, as in 1 Peter 2:2, the emphasis is on eager and guileless learning — learning of the Word most of all — for the sake of maturity and steady testimony.

First Peter is a good example of how an apostle speaks to a church in the midst of social crisis. This letter — which is to be the scriptural basis of the July Lambeth Conference, the occurrence of which is now in doubt — is written to a people going through a “season” of terrible “testing” involving persecution, suffering, and death (1:6-7; 4:12-19). The message, for all its nuances, is straightforward: God is sovereign in his will and grace; that grace is divinely offered in Jesus, who calls out and builds up a Church of holiness, obedience, and charitable self-sacrifice; that Church lives in hope for the “salvation” of its people’s “souls” and a life shared in the “glory” of Christ. Watchwords of the letter are sobriety, steadfastness, holiness, purity, humility, obedience, suffering, and of course, hope. And despite language of “babes” and “comfort,” there is neither clerical maternalization nor congregational infantilization going on: the Church’s people are all “living stones,” built into a single temple of obedience, praise, and sanctity of life (ch. 2).

How to form such a people for such a time? Peter offers little advice, beyond the Scriptures and the witness of Jesus himself, and the spiritual power that is granted through this witness. He lays out the stark contrast between this power and human resources: “For, ‘All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ And this is the word that was preached to you” (1:25-25). The claim is itself a “sobering” reminder of the fragility of human life itself before the eternal glory of God, and the limitation of human resources altogether.

This brings us to the third aspect of current ecclesial directives in the face of the virus that I have observed: what I would call the “siliconization” of the church. Be creative! Innovate! Try new things! This exhortation is actually linked with the maternalization of clerical leadership and the infantalization of the Christian people. This is because siliconization resonates with the contemporary (educated) maternal concerns of busy parents to stimulate their children’s development. In my day it was “serious” German toys made of wood; now it is math camps, three musical instruments, and Italian lessons (perhaps also basic computer programming).

In academia (sigh) it is about new forms of pedagogical “delivery,” inventive styles of learning, and digital originality. As schools have shut down in the pandemic, and teaching is going “online” (maybe), whole faculties are being asked to spend a week or more later this month being trained in these new methods. You might have thought they already knew how to do all this. It turns out that both faculty and students do not. As some are pointing out, both faculty and students are flailing in the face of having to figure out how to manage Zoom sessions, discussion threads, chat messaging, posting on YouTube, and the rest. Despite Google’s metaphorical reach, most people prefer to read books and listen to lectures in person.

Should we live stream worship at this time? Maybe not. At least we should think about why, to what end, and with what consequences. We cannot, nor should we, seek to give the impression that life “goes on as normal.” It never did, after all. Our lives are fragile, vulnerable, and ultimately subject to the power and grace of God who has made us and will finally take us. Their maturity is marked by obediently living into the death of Jesus, with a hope of sharing in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5; 8:17; Phil. 3:10-11; 2 Tim. 2:11). That is the goal of anything that the church seeks to do as a formative and worshipping body. It is also the case that maternalizing, infantilizing, and siliconizing the church probably doesn’t add much to this goal.

Fr. Paul Couturier long ago wrote a now-famous “prayer for unity” (often used during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity). It is deceptively simple. The second half asks, “May Your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division, to see our sin and to hope beyond all hope.” The sentiment fits Christian maturity well. What if, in this Time of the Virus, we took this kind of honesty and simplicity seriously? We would “suffer” the fact that we cannot gather for worship; we would experience straightforwardly the burdens of the moment, some of them quite harsh, unveiling our long-standing misplaced commitments; we would tutor hope in a time of stark changes and impositions.

When it comes to worship, we might learn to pray alone. We might learn to use the prayer book with our families, aloud, regularly — using an actual book, turning pages, touching paper. We might learn to sing hymns together, rather than listening to them broadcast through the computer. We might learn to become lonely (or finally to admit that we already are) and to cry out. We might learn to hunger and thirst even for the Bread of Life, for the Body of Christ, as many have done over the centuries in this or that place of desolation or confinement. We might learn to read the Scriptures audibly, for ourselves and with others in our homes. We might let clergy and others make home visits, one on one. We might — I might! — stop telling everybody what to do, and let them grow up.

We might. But we might not.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

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13 Responses

  1. Lorna M G Harris

    Re the last paragraph, while I agree with what you say about praying and singing hymns, you add, “We might let clergy and others make home visits, one on one.” Actually this is not good advice. No one is supposed to socialize one-on-one with those outside their immediate family, those with whom they live on a daily basis (unless of course any of them have the virus). Visiting one parishioner after another carries the possibility of unknowingly transmitting the virus -especially to the elderly who are considered more vulnerable – or catching it.

    • Ephraim Radner

      Lorna: You’re probably right in general. And here we properly follow the advice of public health officials. Good! But there may be cases where such a visit is necessary, and needs to happen — pastoral crises and such like. Precautions can be taken.

  2. Fleming Blishen

    Thought provoking. You are right about the hymnals but your bias against the tech doesn’t allow you to imagine how it isn’t one or the other.

    This sounds like the old familiarity breeds contempt argument. If we make it to accessible then we take away meaning or value. In my mind not allowing access is much more infantilizing than allowing it. The pain is already there. We don’t need to create more of it. It’s law over grace. I’ll go with grace ie free undeserved gift.

  3. Deborah Baron

    I actually disagree with this article. Yes, there are truths in it but on the most part I can’t agree. I don’t believe that caring for and looking after people represents the “maternalization of the church and especially of her leadership.” Jesus himself cared deeply for all people and looked after them in both spiritual and practical ways. He also taught them rules and called them to obey. It is, therefore, both right and proper for us to come to our Father in heaven as a child comes to a loving father. We are taught to do this over and again in the scriptures, and that he loves us as a caring and compassionate father loves his trusting children. Do we need to mature and grow in our journey with Him, of course, but helping our people is not the “infantilization” of them, it is simply reaching out to each of them, at the individual point in their journey, and helping them to feel loved and cared for. It encourages them to continue along the road of their maturing relationship with our Father in heaven. And while the world changes, and the expectations of newer generations change with it, we are compelled to ensure that our precious message is seen, heard and understood, but if it’s being delivered in out-dated formats, then those newer generations will relegate it to the ‘irrelevant’ basket. Live streaming allows the church to remain accessible for modern society in a way the is both relevant and appropriate for 2020. And while the term “siliconization” is a pop-culture reference to the digital-era that began in Silicon Valley, California back in the 1970’s, it doesn’t alter the fact that the digital format makes it more accessible for everyone. Because, here’s the point, live streaming or recording and posting our church services online makes them more likely to be watched by non-members of our churches. People who are looking for meaning, whether they acknowledge it or not. The millions of unchurched people wanting more from life, more meaning, more joy, more peace, more answers. And right now, during this current pandemic, those very people are feeling scared and questioning their existing belief systems, and looking for more. We can reach them now as never before, through digital models. Yes, there is so much that is right in this article about leaning in, suffering, unity and thirst, and this is all excellent for existing Christians. But if you ask, “what can we take away from this experience, as servants of God?” then I believe that one of the things we can take away is a profound learning in ways to reach the younger generations that are currently falling through he cracks. When this is all over, wouldn’t it be glorious to come back to worship together and find that in addition to the welcome return of familiar faces they were joined by the faces of people who ‘found’ us online. There is much deep learning to be had in the next few months, and discoveries of new ways to not just be the church but also to grow the church and reach the younger generations for God.

    • The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

      To Fleming and Deborah: My remarks were deliberately meant to be provocative, and hence should be taken with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean I don’t really believe what said, but that I pressed my points in a consciously narrow way, in order that the points were clear. Obviously (!) using the digital tools we have available to communicate with people is a reasonable thing to do, for Christians and for churches. It is going to happen, and is happening, and has happened, whatever grumpy-sounding people like me say! You are both right on this score.

      My hope is only that we be clear about why we are doing it, be clear about what we are actually accomplishing, and be clear about what we are NOT accomplishing in all this. Cyber-witness and cyber-evangelism has had its real successes; it has connected with people (and not just young ones) who otherwise might not know about the life of Christ and the Gospel or the Scriptures. I think, however, that it has failed to build people up in the Body of Christ in a lasting way — “maturity” — (numbers seem to bear this out), something that requires other practices and kinds of witness, ones that are deeper and more rooted in the long shape of the Christian tradition, that has been through these kinds of difficult moments many, many, many, many times in the past. (It is good to see that some people are finally trying to educate themseles aboutsome of these past gifts.) The Time of the Virus is exposing all kinds of things. One of them is our churches’, and more pertinently, our own superficial hearts, long untethered from these practices and insights. How we get them back and deploy them today is a real responsibility. My main point is that we take this responsility seriously, and not skate through this time on the basis of the thinly examined tools that are closest at hand. I believe that God really is speaking to us, somehow and in ways that ought properly to render us fearful in the fullest sense, in this moment. It will take a long time to hear and discern exactly what He is saying and grasp why He would say it in this way. But we need to start now and find ways to learn; and not to move on too quickly as if we know how to respond and deal with this all. Faith sometimes finds itself revealed as real in the mid-day darkness It is okay to linger there with awe and open hands; maybe even necessary. I think that too is a genuine Christian witness.

  4. Tara Beth Leach

    Hi! I’d be up for having a discussion on livestream, but not up for the ways you have framed this.

    While I am glad you see the role of maternal figures in scripture, including the maternal images of God, I am disheartened that you have engendered an observation that brings you “frustration.” Perhaps you have forgotten that women are often the brunt of many male leaders frustrations within the church. Maybe there is a disconnect with your context and mine, but as a woman in ministry, I am weary, tired, and done with seeing female and maternal images seen as weakness. Take Mark Driscoll for example? Take John Piper? Take the continued fear within the church – still male dominated leadership – that the church is being weakened “because of the feminization of the church.” What you have done here is taken a critique you have on the church and now labeled it as “feminine” but not only “feminine”, but an “incessant need” to be maternal. Move on over, brothers, but last time I checked, the table has almost always been saturated with the fathers. Women in ministry have been burdened with shame for leading maternally, and this is another example of a male church leader painting a sad picture of women. Deeply ingrained in the psyche of so many women and men in ministry is the notion that nurturing and maternal traits are not leadership traits.


    Your characterization of mothers is unfair, anemic, and short-sided. You say,

    “If bishop and clergy all become “Mom,” everybody else becomes “the kids.” Thus, with the church’s maternalization of leadership comes the Christian people’s infantilization.

    Is this how you view the role of the mothers of the church? Church mothers lead to infantilization” Your critique, then, is that it is the Fathers are the ones who do tell the “children” “how to behave, how to be nice to others, how to organize their time well.”


    Over and over we hear stories of maternal traits as something less than to be desired, as though it is a soft weak blanket that can only bring comfort. While it is culture that paints this picture, and it is culture that over and over begs for these images to be removed from leadership, scripture flips this up on its head and shows it as *strength.* We need the church mothers perhaps *more than ever.* . Maternal and nurturing leaders, like mothers, seek to not only care for her family, but also push for the success of her family. She nurtures in times that call for empathy, presence, and care, but she also pushes, inspires, and motivates. I’m reminded of the image of God in Hosea:

    “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hosea 11:3-4
    *It is I who taught you to walk*

    • The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

      Dear Tara Beth: Your comments are well taken. Still, if “paternalism” in church and society hasn’t been great, “maternalism” isn’t so hot either. “Father knows best” hasn’t necessarily served the church well; “mother knows best” may not either. These are, of course, metaphors of exaggerated relationship (as the “ism” part of the word indicates); they do not intrinsically touch upon the categories of “the feminine” or the “masculine” or even “maternal” and “paternal” in themselves as adjectives. Personally, I don’t like such familial epithets applied to the clergy, as they frequently are (“Mr.” is just fine for me.) My wife, who is ordained and with whom I have worked ministerially, is even more sensitive about such things (“we are not your parents!” she has sometimes been heard muttering under her breath). There are, of course, arguments about this, not least from the tradition. But the early church’s “fathers” or “mothers in Christ” had a meaning rarely embodied in our day (one of which was experienced wisdom and sanctity). All that said, my choice of images was perhaps ill-advised, given our cultural moment, as you amply demonstrate.

  5. curt gesch

    Two questions: 1. Don’t even the most traditional Christians (in terms of what used to be called male headship) hold up the God the Father as caring and comforting? Whence “maternalization?”
    2. In order to grow up (mature), Anglicans have always stressed the importance of the Eucharist. How do you think Eucharist can experienced at a means of God’s grace coming to us?

  6. Alvina

    God needs worshipers before laborers; to be sure the lone satisfactory specialists are the individuals who have taken in the under-appreciated skill of love.


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