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.