I don’t know how you feel about the church at present: enthused, invigorated or just plain fatigued?
I suppose, if I am honest, for me, a little bit of both. I have found the ‘great debates’ about whether the Eucharist should be celebrated from home or from within the sanctuary quite tiring.
I can genuinely see both sides of the argument. But, what I can’t understand, or accept, is that those priests who have decided to follow guidance, either out of a sense of loyalty to their bishop, or out of socio-technological necessity, are being in some way less priestly (in the right sense of the word).
I also find it really hard to understand how a congregation brought together through the via media of the internet is necessarily less present than a congregation gathered in a church. The Lord who ‘is here, and whose ‘Spirit is with us,’ cannot be contained, boxed in, domesticated and privatised. I also find the notion that we have become a membership organisation, saying our private prayers, truly depressing, not to say inaccurate.
Yes place is important, and to be sure I don’t know of a single bishop, priest, deacon and parishioner that doesn’t miss being ‘in church, for going to church is part of our DNA, but we are not bound together simply by place. It is after all entirely possible to be ‘in church,’ yet distracted, absent and elsewhere.
We should also remember, I think and believe, that when we gather to pray we are not bound together simply through being in the same place at the same time, but through the liturgy. Liturgy is our common and binding language. Through our common prayers we are ligatured. This was the great insight of liturgists starting with Odo Casel. Liturgy has the capacity to draw us into a common space.
To be clear there is nothing I look forward to more (other than seeing my family) than to being back in church. I miss the bells, I miss the organ, I miss the choir and I miss the smells. Above all I miss the people. I miss the ‘full monty’ of being gathered in a physical community of the young and the old, the male and the female, the gay and the straight, the well and the sick, the able and the disabled. I miss all of this terribly. And, I am not alone for so does every bishop, priest and deacon that I know.
In the midst of these multiple ‘missings’ the criticism of those who see things differently and who are doing their level best, even if they are doing it less than perfectly, is truly tiring.
I don’t believe for one minute that the Church of England is in retreat, or on the way to irrelevance, and the reason I believe this – with all of my heart – is because one of the things we have rediscovered is our diaconal ministry. Church communities up and down the land have discovered what it means to be dismissed, sent, to ‘love and serve the Lord.’ Church communities, and their bishops, priests and deacons, are present to others ‘in the name of Christ,’ and this is what enthuses and invigorates.
Many, many churches are learning and relearning what it means to ‘respond to human need through loving service’ and as time goes on churches, at the institutional and local level will be well placed to make sure that the ‘unjust structures of society’ are challenged. Churches are also partnering with other civic institutions in new ventures, ‘tending’ to the needs of the vulnerable. The church truly is ‘alive and active’ and our diaconal ministry is being ‘sharpened’ through the horrors of these turbulent times.
In these turbulent times let’s cut each other a little slack and exercise some charity, let’s tend to each other, and accept that we are all trying to do our best: bishop, priest and deacon alike. And finally whether we chose to celebrate from the sanctuary or the kitchen table (and we are doing both) let’s retain a sense of confidence that ‘the Lord is here,’ and ‘his (invigorating) Spirit is with us.’
God is not in retreat, and neither, do I believe is his body: the Church.