On Streams and Places

There’s been an almighty stramash in the past week or so concerning the importance or insignificance of praying from church buildings when videocasting services. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York forbid it; the Government allows it (and the Roman Catholic Church practises it); and various parties (myself include) have exchanged heated words about the proprieties and legalities involved.

In my very firm advocacy of clergy being permitted access to the churches in which they [ordinarily] minister, I want to make sure that several things remain clearly in sight. First, that I don’t suppose that my theology of sacraments or space should be binding on anybody; if someone else holds to a different ecclesiology, or to a catholic-minded theology but a different assessment of law or epidemiology or whatever, they should by all means follow their consciences. Second, as a catholic-minded theologian, I take as given certain theological premises in thinking out my response to these events — but I don’t assume anyone else takes those premises for granted.

Now, down to business: I cannot see any theological, legal, epidemiological, or any other rationale for forbidding a solitary priest going into an adjacent church to videorecord a service of worship. I can see many reasons why many people might disapprove of that, or wouldn’t care, but their disapprobation doesn’t bind my hypothetical protagonist’s conduct, any more than a member of the Society of Friends might disapprove of Solemn High Mass at St Peter’s Basilica without His Holiness the Pope experiencing pangs of doubt. Different premises lead to different conclusions. If you don’t believe in the sanctity of particular places, if you perceive the high altar at St John the Evangelist Church as in no wise different to your kitchen counter (except perhaps less well adapted for chopping vegetables), it’s entirely reasonable for you to think that closing up churches and videocasting from your parlour solves several problems all at one go. (I can think of reasons to hold up against that conclusion, based solely on arguments that derive their force from circumstances not affected by the premises you stipulate, but I won’t press them here.)

By the same token, then, I ask that you observe the analogous reasoning when you consider my plaidoyer in behalf of permitting clergy to pray in and to videocast from their churches. Nobody is endangered by this practice; if the cleric is alone in videorecording and praying, to whom could they transmit the virus? One can’t say that the cleric is endangering themself by being alone in the church, or one would have to close down the church building altogether for health and safety reasons. Manifestly, many parishioners and other would-be viewers find this practice important. Some long at least to see familiar architecture and furnishing when they’re barred from entering their spiritual homes. Some regard the physical characteristics of the setting, the various appliances, ornaments, and affordances of the church building constitute a significant element of their experience of worship. I can imagine a practical churchwarden wanting to call attention to the beauty of the church, such that casual videostream viewers might someday be moved to have a look-in at the church they admired online. (I have not myself recorded or livestreamed worship services during this pandemic save the sermon to which I alluded in my other post of the day, which (you may note) did not involve any in-church footage.) Whatever the reason, the disciple who finds value in participating in worship videostreamed from a church building is not ipso facto an idolater, a hidebound conservative, a heretic, a threat to Western civilisation, or any other such characterisation.

In other words, if your manner of worship works as well — or better — in a secondary-school gymnasium as in a centuries-old church building, God bless you and encourage you to worship in the gym (or wherever you like). And if mine is better suited to a specific architectural context, why may I not exercise my theologically-grounded conviction that this is the most fitting way to praise God and offer the sacraments?

The Archbishop of Canterbury offers five reasons for closing churches altogether, even to those responsible for their oversight and upkeep. First, to set an example to all other people whom the government urges to stay at home. Now, this doesn’t apply to the number of clergy whose homes are (for exactly this sort of reason) physically connected to or proximate with the churches they oversee. It makes no sense to say ‘Give a good example by not going into your second bedroom’ or ‘Don’t go into the shed at the end of your garden during the lockdown.’ If so very many people were aching to get into our church buildings, we would probably have an inkling of it by now.

Second, the Archbishop says, ‘The second reason is that part of the church’s role is to be with people. The church building is a building, the Church is the people of God…’. I struggle to find any coherence to this point. A minister videostreaming from their kitchen is not more ‘with people’ than one streaming from a church. The whole point of the lockdown is to not be with people, and if videostreaming affects that at all, it affects it no differently if done from the setting of a church than of a sitting room. His Grace goes on to say, ‘…when we don’t go to the church building we go back to what we did in the early centuries of the Church and what churches all around the world do at present, which is we meet in homes, just family and household…’. Again, the sense of this eludes me. In the first instance, staying home with our families isn’t what early Christians, or most contemporary Christians, do at all. (Fr Peter Anthony has prepared an informative video talk on the worship life of the early church, for those interested.) I mean Yes, some church groups meet in households — but these are specifically groups coming together from other homes, not the same old residents you eat, sleep, shelter, and shop with. And yet again, if the ‘meeting’ part of the claim means ‘meeting by digital media,’ then it ought to apply equally to church buildings as to walk-in closets. He concludes this thought ‘we use the wonders of technology to be in touch with each other, but we recover the sense that Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there with them.” And they don’t even actually to be physically gathered, virtually gathered does very well indeed. Jesus is quite up-to-date on this stuff.’ As I’ve said three times already (‘What I tell you three times is true’), the whole point of videocasting from a church is to use ‘the wonders of technology’ to make possible a participation in worship that the present pandemic (and the decision of the bishops) makes impossible, wherever the setting of that worship. This is not an argument for closing church buildings; it’s top to bottom a red herring.

Third, Archbishop Justin says ‘it’s about sharing in the inconveniences, the restrictions, the isolations imposed on us.’ I can attest, and I know that many of my clergy siblings can attest, that videorecording oneself without help is not evading an inconvenience, it’s taking on a massive inconvenience. If the Archbishop sets as a goal ‘sharing inconvenience’, then videocasting from a church qualifies in spades. Oh, but also ‘It’s about being part of the flock rather than some super special category that can go and do its own thing.’ Apparently clergy who videocast worship from a church rather than from a box room do so because they perceive themselves to be ‘some super special category,’ ‘doing their own thing.’ (At this point, I cannot help envisioning the late James Brown as a vicar, and honestly I’d be very interested to see him videocast Evensong.) (Yes, I do know that the Isley Brothers made ‘It’s Your Thing’ a hit. I was listening to it on my transistor radio before you were born.) Some people in so speaking would be indulging in a cheap appeal to anticlericalism, but since the Archbishop of Canterbury mustn’t being doing that, he must have some other point in view. I will continue searching for it.

Fourth, ‘we need to remember that the Church of England is the Church for England’; ‘there is the sense you’re there for everyone. And if you’re there for everyone, it means you have to think about everyone. You have to be available in whatever way is best.’ The relevance of this claim to the possibility of videocasting from a church building remains murky. Presumably, he means something along the lines of ‘If people view your videostream and recognise that you’re in a church building, that implies that you are less accessible than if they can tell you’re at home.’ Further, he points out that the NHS has said to stay home — but again, my case rests on the circumstance of a cleric who lives on the grounds already. (There’s a different, and only slightly less compelling, case for clergy who live apart from their church using the church building, but I won’t dilute my point here by introducing that at this stage.) A vicar who videocasts alone from the church is no more or less accessible than is a vicar who videocasts from the sofa, and (in the case in view) no greater a risk to public health, until the NHS insists that nobody go to their garden sheds, or that all should stop exercising altogether.

Finally, ‘it’s not just about us you know, the believers, it’s about everyone, it’s about being welcoming in every way we can.’ I think this implies that videocasting from a church is intrinsically unwelcoming, a claim which if he holds true, will set the cat among the pigeons at Synod, since it would tend to imply that a truly welcoming Church of England must divest itself of all church buildings and operate out of disused warehouses, vacant storefronts, gymnasiums, and off-duty theatres. I think all of these are fine places to worship, by the way, especially if one has no convenient alternative better suited to Christian worship according to the discipline of the Church of England. I would resist the idea, though, that we should auction off St Paul’s in the near future.

Most of what Archbishop Justin said makes much more sense if one adopts an ecclesiology that holds not just that ‘the Church is the people of God’, but that the church better reflects God’s will for the people when they worship in non-specific surroundings. To such an outlook, church buildings truly are an impediment. It must frustrate people greatly that England has so many of them, so conveniently situated, built specifically for the purpose of Christian worship, without which Christian worship might prosper abundantly.

Now, granted all of the above, this is my concluding point: I don’t require (nor would I if I had authority over… well, anything, which I don’t) that Christians who object to church buildings should have to use them, or even feel happy about other people using them. Those who prefer worshipping in gyms should feel entirely free so to do. I’ll defend them with as much breath as I have left after I catch COVID-19 and, I dare hope, recover. Is it too much to ask that those Christians who hold to a carefully developed, longstanding tradition of appreciating churches and cathedrals as settings for Christian worship might be accorded the same encouragement?

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Dear Fr AKMA – Thank you for your analysis of the present, sad situation. One more reason I think you may wish to add to the critique is that when the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks about ‘the restrictions, the isolations imposed on us’, he betrays an exclusively middle class world-view. I have devout parishioners who are going into work everyday because they work at the till of the local Sainsbury’s. Those who are delivery drivers are going into work just as before, if not more so now. The nurses who are in my congregation are also working tirelessly in the hospitals. The ability to work from home is something that is actually on the whole much easier for middle class professionals. I’m afraid the Archbishop has essentially conveyed that the Church of England is in solidarity with the circumstances of the middle class, and thus yet again the CoE ignores the reality of the working class as irrelevant. I suppose ‘the Church of England is the Church for [the comfortably well-off, sip-my-artisan-coffee while I tap away on my laptop working from home] England’. Lord, have mercy! Easter blessings, Eric

  2. I am 74 and have attended church all my life
    I am so angry at the Bishop for not allowing our Clergy to stream the services from his church
    He is however allowed to conduct funerals at the crematorium and continue his duties as assistant chaplain at a hospital
    He through tour this terrible time has been available 24/7 for his parishioners.He sadly had to conduct All of the Holy Week services from his study which we all knew he was very unhappy to do
    Like nurses,doctors ,shop workers etc who put themselves on the line daily our clergy is less likely not catch this virus alone in church as he would be vulnerable doing all other duties
    I feel the Bishops have let down the Church of England and their parishioners and you say they are doing this fir the NHS is a contradiction
    Like all frontline workers for most of them as it is for the clergy a vocation and in the words of our”he felt he had been divorced from his Altar”
    We are so thankful for all the support he has shown to all of us despite having to conduct services from home. I might add this has been from day one of this lockdown and still continues to be daily Available for us all

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