Covid Confusion: Church of England clergymen and their buildings
The Archbishop of Canterbury closed the chapel in his official Lambeth Palace residence out of solidarity with closed churches across the country
Let us imagine for a moment a parallel universe in which some events of the past few weeks have developed differently.
In this alternative science-science reality, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York meet to discuss the Church of England's response as the coronavirus pandemic sets in. And part of their decision is that vicars can continue to enter churches to pray privately and record or stream worship services, otherwise it would be a "violation of duty".
Of course, that would have been in line with the government's guidelines. This means that a minister of religion "is allowed to go to his place of worship, including broadcasting an act of worship to people outside the place of worship, be it on the Internet or otherwise."
What if the instructions from the archbishops were to allow this instead of urging the clergy not to (as they actually did)? Here is another scenario in this old universe: somewhere a pastor enters a church for private prayer. He closes the door when he comes out and returns home. Later, a caregiver passing by who is tired after a long shift in the nursing home comes by on the way home and wonders if he could come into the building for a little rest. They try the handle of the church door only to find that it is closed. No matter – they go home and back to work the next day.
It turned out that nurses picked up Covid-19 from the church door handle because the pastor was infected but had no symptoms. The corona virus spreads from nursing staff to the elderly residents of the nursing home and a dozen die. In a short time, with a little journalistic ambition, the story is spread throughout the national press.
Of course that didn't happen. But if the archbishops had made our proposed alternative decision, it might have done so. And imagine the media storm that would have broken out – with journalists who linked the Church of England's "negligence" to the virus with its "negligence" in terms of protection, and columnists who dealt with "one Standard for privileged clergymen, another for everyone else. Critics in the church itself would undoubtedly insult the primates for poor leadership, lack of attention to science, and prioritizing church buildings over the health of the nation.
As we know, of course, Justin Welby and John Sentamu decided differently. But they must rightly have had all sorts of scenarios similar to theirs. They would also have known other countries where churches were promoting Covid-19 for the wrong reasons. One church in France was associated with 2,500 cases, another in South Korea with 5,000. Perhaps the archbishops had even seen the headline in the infection control today: "Churches could be the deadliest places in the COVID-19 pandemic".
Therefore, I am surprised that a vocal minority of clergymen was so strong against Justin Welby's instruction (though later clarified as "guidance") that they temporarily did not enter their churches. A letter in the Times last week from 800 ministers and laypersons said the buildings were "the consecration of our public life." And just before, both the Post and the Telegraph reported that an evangelical pastor said it was "time to riot," while retired liberal bishop Peter Selby said in The Tablet: "The bishops seem to think that Christianity is Christianity is to have accepted. " For the domestic realm, it is important that our cathedrals and parish churches are only optional. & # 39;
Meanwhile, Meg Warner, an academic who taught in both the UK and the US, made the unsubstantiated claim last week that the archbishops' stance was an admission … that in these admittedly extraordinary times, the Church of England, If it intervened, it would probably do more harm than good ”and somehow managed to relate it to the Aberfan coal disaster in bad taste.
But the theology of the Bible is clear: while in the Old Testament the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple became particularly clear, it is now followers of Jesus who are this "sacred space" – because the Holy Spirit dwells in us. In fact, the New Testament says nothing about buildings being essential to worship – whether in the church or alone. The theologian Ian Paul goes into much more detail in his Psephizo blog.
Buildings are generally useful and can be very beautiful – and we have three wonderful 1000 year olds in our parishes here. But theologically, there was and is no biblical (or even technological) need for clergymen to broadcast or record church services live in church buildings. According to the Word of God, ministers do not have to go there for private prayer. and no biblical mandate to make it an absolute imperative to oppose the bishops.
The measure would always be temporary. There are already plans for individual bishops to let clergymen back into their buildings, as is appropriate in every diocese. What, one wonders, has this negativity triggered some reactions? The habit of automatically opposing everything bishops can say or do? An embarrassed love – maybe even idolatry for some (I can only say it) – of buildings or the technology in them? An Old Testament and not a New Testament theology about where God is present? The fear that this could be an unhelpful precedent for governmental or episcopal interventions in local church life?
Sometimes it is appropriate to criticize Anglican bishops (as I have done), but on this particular issue it seems appropriate to relax them a little and show generous understanding. These are measures in unprecedented times. Maybe they got it right, maybe they were overly cautious; I dont know. Either way, at some point we will all soon have to struggle with the complexity of worship in church buildings with appropriate social distance and will probably miss our self-recorded services.
In the meantime, there were some wonderful new opportunities for the mission. Many churches have been put into new ways and new lives. And at the end of the day Justin Welby was theologically just right when he said, “We don't depend on the buildings, as wonderful as they are and they are treasures. What we need is the presence of God through Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who leads us to his love, his mission, his followers. & # 39;
Perhaps this truth about buildings that he articulated so well is one of the many things the Lord is trying to teach us right now. And maybe it is something some of my – generally lovable – clergy may just have to hear.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist who now works as Anglican Minister @Baker_David_A