The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has witnessed the first complete closure of all churches in England since 1280. For more than 800 years, the churches of our nation have been physical symbols of faith, prayer and stability. So, what happens when they are no longer available?
The answer is one of both unexpected joys and serious challenges. The speed at which church communities have adapted to social distancing has been nothing short of remarkable. Groups of like-minded people have formed from both within the church and in the wider community to care for the most vulnerable in our villages. People have organised themselves to do shopping for neighbours; to telephone those who are on their own; to create worship resources that can be shared on-line; to pray for our nation and key-workers. The ingenuity of what can be accomplished with a smart phone and an internet connection has opened more doors for the Church of England than could possibly have been imagined 6 months ago. And yet, we have also been faced with the stark reality of what it means to no longer be able to share time with those we love. For all the amazing things that are taking place, we have been shown that there is no substitute for sitting with a neighbour or friend and sharing a cup of tea.
For me as a vicar, these times have required swift adaptation. I am reminded that it was during the Babylonian Exile that the Jewish people, in spite of the horrors they suffered, rediscovered the depths of their relationship with God. This time of exile for the Church has been a time of deepening prayer, of space for study and reflection – things my predecessors in the parishes took for granted as part of their daily ministry but have become increasingly side-lined in the modern world. We are discovering how to separate the necessary from the superfluous. And yet, the restrictions on visiting the sick or the dying or the bereaved weigh on my heart like a stone. What is a parish priest if they cannot bring solace to those in distress? I am also highly conscious of the enormous financial strain this has placed on the Church. Cut-backs in clergy were on the horizon anyway. Now, there is real concern that the next time our churches close, it will be permanent.
I am not alone among my clergy colleagues in wrestling with these questions. The pandemic has forced a period of change upon us. It has brought into sharp focus the real needs of our communities and turned upside-down the expectations of society, so that those who were once not as valued as they should have been are now called ‘key workers’. Within the Church, too, we have had our priorities challenged and been reminded of our core purpose: to share the teachings of the Gospel, to administer the Sacraments, to pray for the needs of the world, to love one another as Christ loves us. In this time when the Sacraments can no longer be physically shared, we feel their absence all the more keenly. Priests may celebrate the Eucharist on behalf of the wider community at home, but to share it again in church with the people of God will truly be a celebration of God’s gifts to humanity. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder.
And so, I am left wondering whether these changes will leave a more permanent mark on our lives. For those who have been left bereaved by this terrible virus, the answer is obvious. I hope – I pray – that their loss will be remembered, especially those that have died in the course of helping and caring for others. On the battlefield, such bravery is recognised with medals. On the wards and in public services I hope their bravery is remembered with a real commitment to maintaining the positive changes we have discovered during this time.
And so, I want to add another item to the list of things the Church holds on behalf of the nation: in the past it has kept the faith; it has provided space to pray; it has maintained tradition and spoken of the presence of God in local life. And now it must help us to remember. To remember what it was like when our churches were not available, when the blessings of the internet served only to highlight the desperate need we all have to share in one another’s company and recognise the importance of human well-being above all other concerns.
The Reverend Philip Morton, Vicar of Badsey with Aldington, Bretforton, Offenham, South Littleton, North Littleton & Middle Littleton and Cleeve Prior