Talking of being invigorated & tired by church

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.

One thought on “Talking of being invigorated & tired by church

  1. Thank you very much for this. I have been part of the problem you identify in issuing various dire warnings about finance. This comes from my experience of seeing very many small churches, and my fear that they will be let go (as a result of the financial crisis that is befalling the Church), despite their intrinsic worth – as I see it – to their local communities and to the nation at large.

    You, however, are almost the only clerical blogger I have encountered who has made a sober and credible assessment of the financial situation and, if you will forgive the impertinence, this is greatly to your credit.

    I have not been against the bishops’ policy. From the vantage point of March, and the experience of Professor Gina Radford at Churston Ferrers, the adoption of a total lockdown was a plausible policy choice. Indeed, I can understand why the bishops chose to use strong and unambiguous language, because ambiguity is the friend of infection. Moreover, the continuation of this policy – even in the face of strong criticism – has remained plausible to some extent because unlike other European countries the death rate in the UK has remained stubbornly high (I note that there was another, smaller, spike reported this afternoon).

    The ‘debate’ has tended to bifurcate unhealthily along party lines, and has become rather a dialogue of the deaf. It has been painful reading the more strident advocates of each party hurl comminations against each other. Yet it seems to me that there is a large section within the Church that sees buildings as adiaphora (if not idolatrous to some extent), and their celebration of new forms of worship strikes me as being ill-concealed relief at being rid, at long last!, of an appalling built encumbrance, which year after year saps the vitality and purpose of people who took orders in order to bring people to God, rather than to act as the conservators of historic properties (for which they were not trained). I accept these views, although I sometimes wish they would be more candid about it.

    Only they are not actually ‘rid’ of this encumbrance, as yet. It is still there.

    *However*, many of us will be aware that parish share subventions have collapsed (though I have not yet seen figures measuring the extent of the collapse). They have collapsed largely because people are not putting money onto church plates in real services. Unless those celebrating new forms of virtual worship, even with enhanced attendance, are able to demonstrate that they are generating revenues that are comparable or in excess of the income lost as a result of the total lockdown, they remain en route to disaster for all they perceive their ministry has improved, since the Church will continue to cannibalise its capital with disastrous effects for future generations and, perhaps, for the more immediate future. It is invariably the case that revenue is lost with any shift from the real to the virtual, and is typically offset by advertising revenues – but that is probably not going to happen with virtual worship except perhaps on a ‘mega-church’ basis with all the different problems that entails.

    So we return, again, to the affordability of the stipendiaries. I understand that curates have been put on furlough in Liverpool diocese, and that some clergy in Worcester diocese have taken voluntary pay-cuts. Good for them (assuming they have secure housing), but strategies of this type need to be applied much more comprehensively, and also with respect to the CEFPS. I hope that the Commissioners (on behalf of the whole Church) are investigating with HM Treasury the ability for clergy to access the furlough scheme (is telephoning or Skyping parishioners ‘work’ such that it would bar eligibility to furlough scheme funds, or is it social engagement?). I suggest they start pressing the first lord of the Treasury who is, incidentally, an ex officio Commissioner.

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