People are now beginning to think more and more about what the exit strategy from lockdown might be like. There are some concerns about the level of engagement with what this means for churches – especially as the secular media seems silent on this. Perhaps we should not be surprised. In more encouraging news, national church leaders are being consulted and proactively making representations to number 10.
So it is important that we have a discussion/debate about how to move beyond lockdown as churches. There are two elements to this. First of all, we want to be thinking about how we respond to the different potential scenarios we might see post lockdown. Many church leaders are already talking about this and I will share some of my thoughts in a further post. This includes being ready for different possible options.
The other side of the coin is that we need to be representing to the Government our views on if, when and how the church can come out of the lockdown phase so that hopefully we are heard. This is important not least as evangelicals because there are some fundamental misunderstandings in public life, coloured by what they see of the public, national church.
What do I mean by this? Well, take one example the other day. A bunch of MPs took it on themselves to write, not to the Government but to the Archbishops, demanding that churches provided funerals in their buildings. These funerals would be sparsely attended, gloomy, restricted affairs and not a patch on the beautiful, meaningful family committals at the graveside so many of us have been involved in. When a vicar responded and said “no this isn’t the priority” the lead MP got quite uppity. There was talk about the deceased’s wishes to enjoy their right to a church funeral as the high point of their spiritual journey. So, we are up against a perception that worship is primarily performative and sacramental with priests performing and laity watching so it doesn’t matter if it is on line or in the building as long as the priest can enter sacred space to offer the eucharistic sacrifice. People are worrying about the reversal of hard won civil liberties but we should be more concerned about the reversing of 500 years of reformation which is the bedrock of the freedoms we enjoy.
So, here are some thoughts from my perspective.
The importance of Gathering
First of all, we want to emphasise the importance of physical communal gathering. There is a theological and a practical dimension to this. As readers of Faithroots will know, I personally never bought into the idea that our zoom gatherings were just a spiritual or virtual encounter. However, exactly because I believe in the importance of physical, embodied gathering, I recognise a longing and hunger for something better than what we are experiencing so far. Our faith is not merely a private, inner affair nor is it about a performance by clergy for an audience of laity. Rather, the church is an interconnected family of God’s people and our practice is to encourage all to be engaged, using their gifts for the encouragement and building up of each other.
Secondly, practically, for Government ministers and civil servants who may not care too much about different religious beliefs, there are reasons why it makes good sense to plan and provide for genuine and meaningful public gatherings (of churches but also for other parts of society).As I argued early on, there is more than one way to die. There are the emotional challenges of isolation and this can affect people’s physical health as well as leading to ongoing mental health challenges. There is something about the ability of communities to gather that provides encouragement and hope. Indeed, it has been the hope of a future gathering that has kept many going. A lot of church leaders are thinking in terms of provision for communal mourning and celebration, a kind of Easter, Pentecost and Harvest rolled into one. So our aim to gather must have as its end go a return to full gathering when everyone can come together.
Thirdly, it is good that to some extent, the Government has recognised that religious workers are key workers. However, it is important to understand how this functions in the community. Whilst many churches employ pastors/vicars, their role is not just to be a key worker in the community but to mobilise, equip and encourage a whole group of “key workers” who love and care for their communities. So enabling and supporting churches as they begin to function more fully again will benefit the wider society.
The need to mourn, remember and give thanks
One of the reasons I found the MPs’ letter about funerals so frustrating was that they focused purely the building and missed the reason why people want a church funeral which is as much about the desire to gather family, friends and community to mourn, say goodbye and give thanks for a life. Many churches are offering the possibility of a future thanksgiving/memorial to families who were not able to hold a full funeral.
Additionally, there is the need to celebrate and publicly recognise things like marriages, births and professions of faith (through baptism). It is worth emphasising that Christians believe that marriage is important and that you get married before you move in together, sleep together and have children. It was indeed a distressing sign of the state of affairs when one of the government’s medical officers told boyfriends and girlfriends to choose one of their homes to move in together. However, whilst we recognise that society has changed and such things may not be important to all, they are important to many.
Further, it is not about the individual events. Whether it is clapping for carers on our doorsteps during the virus, holding a minute’s silence at a football game, observing Remembrance Sunday and/or the joy of Jubilee street parties, there is something in us that needs to come together to grieve and remember tragedies as well as to celebrate victories. I am sure I’m not alone in the desire that we will be able to do something to mark the end of lockdown with our whole communities.
Caring for the most vulnerable
One of the challenging things for many of us has been that those who have most had to shield and self-isolate are those most in need of a visit for pastoral support. I believe that some clear guidelines and permission about house visits is an important priority.
Additionally, I suspect it is likely that the most vulnerable to the virus will have to continue to shield longer than everyone else. Again, they are often the most in need of spiritual comfort and encouragement but they are least likely to have access to the technology needed to engage with things like online church services. I think it is good that the government are prioritising getting broadband provision and the necessary hardware to children learning from home who need it. I wonder whether or not this could be extended to vulnerable older people who are isolating. The beauty of this is that churches can provide much of the manpower to help get them set up so they can interact with services and have visual interactions with friends and family through video calls.
I want to emphasise that churches want to engage supportively with the process for ending lockdown just as we have been heavily involved in sustaining it. We do not want to be irresponsible or claim special privileges for ourselves but we do want the Government to take into account what we are saying and engage as this will not just benefit the churches but have a wider impact on the whole of society.