Using church buildings in Coronatide

Over in England, some members of the Church of England are getting themselves tied up in knots. Like us, because of the current pandemic they aren’t allowed to hold public services in their church buildings. Unlike us, their clergy aren’t even allowed to stream Sunday services in the buildings, or go into them to pray the daily offices by themselves. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have forbidden it. They need to stream their services from their vicarages. The Archbishop of Canterbury even streamed one from his kitchen, which seems to have aroused the ire of traditionalists. The controversy has been exhaustively covered at the Thinking Anglicans website, although I must warn you that the comments are not for the fainthearted.

And this has been very controversial. People have written articles on both sides of the subject. A retired bishop has written a piece for ‘The Tablet’ which has gotten a lot of attention (I can’t read it because it’s behind a paywall, but the title of the piece is ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’, so you get the drift). The argument seems to be that churches are public space, open to all, so clergy should be allowed to stream services from them. Vicarages are private space (especially kitchens?), and for some reason it’s not good for services to take place in private space.

Now, I need to start by freely admitting that there are things about the Church of England I will never understand, despite the fact that I grew up in it. The whole idea of an established state church is repugnant to my theology of the Church as a fellowship of resident aliens (we read 1 Peter at the Daily Office last week; you’ll find it all spelled out there). And the fact that the early church got along for a couple of centuries without any church buildings seems to sit rather strangely with the idea that church buildings are now somehow essential to the public mission of the church. What public mission would that be? The mission Jesus gave his church was to make new disciples for him. The early (pre-church building) church did that spectacularly well. The modern church, not so much.

Be that as it may, there are three comments I wish to make.

First, it is alleged that churches are public space, appropriate for public worship, while vicarages are not; they are private homes. I find myself wondering how many of the people who make this claim actually grew up in vicarages. I did. My dad was ordained in his thirties, and from then on I lived in church housing. I can assure you, vicarages are not private space. The Parochial Church Council met in the living room once a month. Bible study groups (then known as ‘home meetings’) met there regularly. My parents entertained parishioners frequently, either individually or in groups. Our garden was used for vicarage garden parties. As a teenager, I was starved for private space. I felt like I was living in a goldfish bowl, on public display, which for an introvert like me was very hard. So I don’t buy this nonsense about vicarages being more private than churches. They aren’t.

Furthermore (and this is the second point), whatever the intrinsic nature of these houses may be, streaming public services from them makes them public. Here in Canada our experience is less extreme than in the Church of England (at least in my diocese). I have not been forbidden to stream Sunday services from the church, and so I do it. But I also stream daily services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer from my house, from the little room I’m currently using as a study (because I’ve been told to work from home as much as possible during the pandemic). As a result, many people now know what the inside of my house looks like. This is a big change, because I live in my own house, not a vicarage/rectory. My study at home is now public space.

And funnily enough, no one has complained about that. We do the daily offices in a relaxed kind of way, and that seems to fit well with the relaxed feeling of my study. I would even argue that it’s a better fit for streamed services. They’re different from public services in church. In church, people relate to the worship leader as members of a crowd, but when they participate in a live streamed service, although the leader might experience it as a group event, the participants do not: they only see the leader (and any others who may be assisting him or her). In other words, it’s more like listening to talk radio; you feel like the host is talking directly to you, not to the other two hundred thousand people who are listening in. And the most successful talk radio hosts (I think of the late Peter Gzowski, for example) know how to use this personal and informal aspect of the medium to best advantage. I think we would do well to think about the implications for live streamed services, especially in smaller churches.

Thirdly, I would like to contest the point that services in church are open and welcoming to all, whereas services live streamed from the vicarage are somehow more ‘gated’, more private. There are huge swathes of the population for whom this is simply not true.

Let’s take the disabled population. People who are hard of hearing often find church frustrating (I have a constant struggle to get my lay readers to use our microphones; they protest that their voices are loud enough, despite the complaints we get from some of our more elderly members.). Blind people struggle to find a place in services that rely totally on people’s ability to read. People in wheelchairs frequently find churches inaccessible. People who struggle with mental illnesses find the constant expectation of cheerfulness brutally exclusive.

But what about the folks who have never darkened the doors of a church? I’m an evangelist and I make it my business to listen carefully to my non-Christian friends. I’ve been told several times how emotionally difficult it is for some of them to make it through the door of a church. They have absolutely no idea what they will encounter on the other side. And I’m not even going to begin to talk about the abysmal job many churches do of making first-time attenders feel welcomed and included in the worship. Church buildings an open and welcoming space? In many cases, that’s a delusion only long-time church goers could believe in.

The truth is, whether or not churches are public space, they are certainly religious space, and I think this is what really lies behind a lot of the objections to the archbishops’ policy in England. People like the experience of Christianity as a religion. And what are the characteristics of religions? They differentiate between the sacred and the non-sacred. They have sacred places where you go to meet God, and non-sacred places where you work and play and rest; the two are clearly distinguished from each other. And religions have sacred and non-sacred people. Priests are holy and special; they relate to God on our behalf, Ordinary people don’t expect to have the same familiarity with God’s presence.

In the New Testament, Christianity was not a religion. It had no professional priesthood; in fact, it saw itself in totality as a royal priesthood to which all its members belonged (see 1 Peter again). Ministry was shared by all Christians under the direction of elders who were far more like a combination of lay readers and vestry members than a professional priesthood. And Christianity had no sacred spaces; the early Christians met in homes in small groups, and did their evangelizing in public spaces like Mars Hill, and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

In later centuries, of course, Christianity became far more like a standard religion, with a professional priesthood and church buildings (referred to as ‘houses of God’). People are so used to this way of operating that they barely notice how foreign it is to the ethos of the New Testament. And when an aspect of it is threatened (as it is in the Church of England right now with the closing off of ‘sacred space’), they get very defensive.

I have two suggestions.

First, we need to see the current crisis as an opportunity, not a threat. In recent days a survey in England has shown that, although only about 6% of the population attends church on Sundays, around 25% have tuned in to a live streamed service since the pandemic began. Speaking personally, for years I have said Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alone in church. Now I say them in my home and stream them on Facebook, and I rarely have less than fifteen people joining me. A couple of them are people I thought had drifted away from our church. This is just one example of the new opportunities that present themselves. The world is changing, and the call of the Church is always to find fresh ways of sharing the Gospel message in new circumstances.

Secondly, we all need to calm down. This week Marcus Green has written eloquently about this. Clergy and lay people are all under unique stress right now. People are getting sick and dying, seeing their loved ones die alone in long term care facilities, losing their jobs and livelihoods, seeing their academic year evaporating before their eyes. Many of us are having trouble sleeping at night. Many more are having trouble making ends meet.

Is this the time for Christians to be sniping at each other about something as unimportant as whether or not we are allowed to stream services from the church? Surely what we need to be doing right now is being gentle and patient with each other, encouraging and supporting each other, not arguing about unimportant matters.

“But it’s not unimportant!” people will say. “It’s about the worship of God; how can it be unimportant?”

It’s unimportant, because Jesus and the authors of the New Testament apparently had no opinion on the matter. Or wait; maybe they did! Jesus was once asked about it by a woman of Samaria. She pointed out that her Samaritan ancestors had taught that God was to be worshipped on the mountain near Samaria, but the Jewish people (represented, in her view, by Jesus) asserted that the proper place for worship was Jerusalem.

‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”‘ (John 4.21, 23-26).

The location of worship is of no importance. God has no opinion on that matter. What is important is that the true worshippers worship God “in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him.” And notice where this conversation was taking place? Not in a Temple or church building. Not in a vicarage or private home. It was taking place at the town well, the most public space in the community.

Where are the town wells in our communities? Where are the real public spaces, the spaces where people congregate? Bars and coffee shops? Post offices? Public parks? Definitely, but I would suggest that in a time of Coronavirus, cyberspace is one of the most outstanding public spaces. And if we want to engage in the conversations that will lead people to Christ, we could do worse than to follow the example of Jesus and go into those spaces to meet them. What matters isn’t whether we ‘go’ to the town well from the church or the vicarage or rectory. What matters is what we do at the wellside when we get there. And that, I would suggest, is a conversation actually worth having.

6 thoughts on “Using church buildings in Coronatide

  1. Much of what you say about Vicarages and churches reflects my experience as a priest in the Church of England. there is only one comment I would make and its about spirituality.

    The Celts referred to places where its easier to pray as thin spaces – spaces where God is closer or feels closer to us than normal. Our churches produce that space and in urban areas this is of particular importance. in our villages the church is often a focus of many things social and community centred, in both places churches are a place of hope.

    The closure of the buildings even to the camera and priest (which frankly is ridiculous) denies even the ongoing vision of prayer in our churches which would have helped at least the faithful

  2. Ruth Wyatt

    Thank you for the above. It has given me much food for thought and helped me to see that in fact the church (meaning the people) has, I think, become stronger in this difficult time. I would say mainly because we have had to think more about our faith. We have reached out to people in such a positive way. At first I did find it difficult to concentrate on services from priest’s homes, looking around their room at pictures, ornaments and the like! But you eventually realise discipline is necessary and you are there to worship our Lord. In that respect the church building does help, you can concentrate your mind without any effort. Maybe this is too easy though, perhaps a bit more effort is necessary.

  3. Hi Tim,

    Love Edmonton, have a friend there who I visited a few years ago..oh and I love the acknowledgement to the First Nations and the land. Anyway…

    Love your bog, nothing like something to stir up conversation; a couple of reflections,

    1. Totally agree, we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the living stones and so it is to us as a community that people should be drawn, not to a building.

    2. I think it is more of a function of purpose, as community hubs and shared spaces, buildings can be really useful; Paul in Acts 20:20 describes a little of the dispersed and gathered nature of community and then talking of gathering around the Lord’s table, I’ve always read the word ‘all’ to be when all of the little house communities come together as one, but I’m not sure we really know. So much mystery!

    A building without healthy missional community is useless as it draws us away from nitty gritty of shared discipleship, its not buildings that create church.., however when community is properly established, its so useful to have somewhere regular to use…to serve the poor, house the homeless etc etc…oh and if we use it to gather a couple of times a month too, all the better! ”It’s what we do there there matters’…absolutely!


  4. Paul, you said, ‘The Celts referred to places where its easier to pray as thin spaces – spaces where God is closer or feels closer to us than normal. Our churches produce that space and in urban areas this is of particular importance.’

    I suggest that churches do not produce that space for all people, or even for many. Personally, although I am the rector, I find it far easier to pray in the easy chair in my study at home than I do in my church building. Why? Because of habit. I pray in that chair at least twice a day.

    I think it’s interesting that you would refer to ‘the Celts’ rather than to the teaching of the New Testament. Surely the NT would teach us that prayer can be offered to God anywhere. If we have taught our people to be so dependent on church buildings that they feel they can’t pray unless they are in them – and can’t enjoy a service unless it is coming from them – then I suggest we have done real spiritual harm to them. Dependence on a church building for prayer is not a feature of Christian discipleship in the NT.

  5. I don’t at all disagree with the idea that buildings are useful, Ben. I simply think that if we have taught people to be dependent on the buildings for prayer, we have done them a huge spiritual disservice. And I think the amount of time and energy being spent in the C of E right now arguing over this issue is frankly immoral, given the magnitude of the human suffering taking place in every community.

  6. Thank you, Ruth. Every day I sit in my little study in my house and stream Morning and Night Prayer, and I’m joined by 10-20 people each time. I’m so conscious of the community I’m praying with. This is far beyond anything I ever experienced when I was praying the Daily Office alone in my church building. So yes, I’m absolutely sure that our church has become stronger.

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