By John Wallace
The present restrictions on in-person public worship for the Church of England raises serious questions about the nature of the Church as a eucharistic community. In this essay, I probe the problems facing us as a result of the restrictions.
I need to emphasize that this is an “England only” response. Devolution means that Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland make their own regulations. In addition, the role of churches is different. The Church of England is the established church in England and therefore has certain (dubious) “privileges.”
In the previous lockdown in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 regulations forbade physical church services. The House of Bishops issued “guidance,” which most clergy took as instructions, that went beyond what was included in the Regulations: clergy were forbidden to enter their churches, except for security checks, even if their churches were adjoined or adjacent to their vicarages. In the case of my parish church, the vicar can walk to church without going on to the public highway as the vicarage is contiguous to the churchyard. So we had a live-stream of the Eucharist celebrated in her study, alongside the bizarre spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrating the Easter Eucharist at his kitchen table (even though within the confines of Lambeth Palace, he has a very simple but beautiful chapel, where I have shared the Eucharist with his predecessor on a couple of occasions).
This current lockdown is different. Places of worship legally remain open but in many cases, they are de facto closed. The guidance of bishops varies; some urge clergy not to open churches, others leave it to individual choice in consultation with the Churchwardens and Parochial Church Council. So a pseudo-diktat is replaced by episcopal laissez-faire. Many clergy are very cautious so will not offer in-person worship.
However, I believe that the opportunity to access gathered worship is important alongside streaming via whatever platform you can use. If nothing else, it gives those who access online a sense of community, rather than seeing the celebrants saying the responses to themselves! So I attend the Sunday Eucharist in person, with about 10% of our normal congregation.
The Current Situation in England
In spite of the above, in this current and unprecedented situation, we, as the national church, are struggling in our response. There is material online which meets the needs of some, but most of us believe that the essence of our witness is local — the church of God in this place — wherever we are. This is the core of the parish system along which the Church of England has been organized at least since the thirteenth century. The national offering is purely palliative — one size might fit all but struggles to meet our local needs.
Many churches are streaming services via Facebook and other such platforms, and I rejoice in this as I worship each day for Morning and Evening Prayer in Durham Cathedral. (The clergy there are fantastic and have the right welcoming and inclusive attitude — and generally the technology works!). But for very many others regular worship is missing. Some simply do not have the technology. For many others, even if they regularly contact their grandchildren via Facetime, they cannot find a way to link into the worship of God on other different platforms. Sadly, many clergy think that once they have sorted online worship, “the sheep are fed.”
For many of our people, Facebook is a scary unknown and threatening place, full of unwanted links and contacts with which they do not want to engage and about which they are concerned about being hacked. (This is what many of my older friends tell me.) This may seem irrational, but it is a present reality for many, and so they will not engage. I myself engage only reluctantly.
What can the Church do? We need to get back to physical relationships! In most parishes, there is probably a way to distribute a weekly news sheet/message/magazine; if not, we should be able to set up a system. There are people willing to put things in letterboxes — not rocket science, and not threatening like visiting. It can even be part of the daily exercise regime.
We need to build on this. Milton reminded us that “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” The response is that in this situation, so many of our feeding troughs remain inaccessible because of our blinkered, technologically-focused vision. So let us feed our sheep, ensuring that all are fed, not just the technologically literate — otherwise we become exclusive.
What about an outdoor Eucharist (weather permitting), rather than worship inside a building if that worries them? Just one suggestion.
My real concern is that online worship could become an easy option or even a norm in some parishes. This flirts with a form of Gnosticism in which the “in” group, the technologically literate, have access to the Mysteries. The Eucharist is the communion, in a physical space, of the family of God. It may work for some churches who do not have such a doctrine of the Eucharist, to be principally online, but again for me, in line with Hebrews 10:25, physical presence is essential. In the Eucharist, I see a triangle — myself and my fellow communicant at the altar, linked to ‘the things above, “where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.”
Online worship will always be second best. We need to be physically with our fellow Christians and to share in the holy kiss of peace when it is safe to do so(Rom. 16:16), even if for now we do so from a distance.
My prayer is that we can all resume physical worship soon in all our churches, of whatever denomination we are and wherever in God’s word we live.
John Wallace is a student of the Doctorate of Theology and Ministry Programme at Durham University UK. In his mid-seventies, he is active in his parish’s ministry team.