The UK Government has said that it aims to see places of public worship opening from the 4th July at the earliest. That’s promising. However, before you get too excited, check the detail. Comments from those involved in consultations suggest that we will not be opening for public worship, rather church buildings will be allowed to open for private prayer.
What does that mean? Well, in some church traditions, the practice is to open buildings throughout the week so that members of the public can drop in and find a quiet place to sit and pray. On one level, that’s not a bad thing. People caught up in the noise and hustle and bustle of life may well welcome a little oasis of peace in the middle of all of this. However, on that level, entering the church building is no different to finding a little known city park where you can stop and find quiet.
Concerningly, the idea of attending a place of public worship for private prayer is also attached to the idea that church buildings are some how sacred space where you can be closer to God. The idea that we need to find special places where God is better able to hear us should be an anathema to believers in Jesus who have the Holy Spirit indwelling them.
We don’t need sacred spaces open for our private prayers. We need space to gather for public worship. There is no point going to another building in order to sit and pray on your own.
This is not to deny the place for personal prayer in a church gathering. Corporate worship includes our individual expressions of trust and delight in the Lord and our petitions for his help. It fascinates me as I read the Psalms to see that they reflect both a sense of saying “We” together and numerous occasions when the Psalmist says “I”. Those “I” Psalms would have been sung by the people together at the Temple and on pilgrimage there too.
What this reminds us is that whilst there will be times when I seek privacy to pour my heart out so that only the Lord hears, personal is not the same as private. When I pray a personal prayer in church, my brothers and sisters say “amen” with me. We stand together, we encourage one another, we find hope together.
I am not looking forward to our building being open so people can come for private prayer. I am looking forward to the day when we able to be in the same place adding our amens to the personal prayers of each other as we seek to encourage one another