Being Together

I’ve spent much of the last week on a course. Normally, I would have travelled down to Leicester and stayed in a hotel for this. Classroom sessions would have taken place in the St Michael’s Centre just across the way from Leicester Cathedral. The hotel bar might also have been a venue for some of the (very important) interactions in which one learns with and from one’s peers.

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None of that was possible last week. Instead, I sat in my study at home, and looked at my computer screen. Every aspect of the course happened on Zoom. For those who don’t know, Zoom is a piece of software that makes it possible for groups of people to see each other, talk to each other, and share prepared material with each other, all over the interent. Because of Zoom, we can be together without being together.

In the last few weeks, many of you will have experienced a dramatic rise in the number of things that you do online. This has required all of us to learn new ways of running our lives, and learn them quickly. Church has been no exception: developing e-Church has required us to learn new technology and invent new ways of constructing acts of worship so that we can be together without being together.

All of this, it seems to me, raises very important questions about what really matters in human relationships, in human life, and in the church. And although I’ve now written the phrase twice, I have to own up: I do not sincerely believe that we can be together without being together. Sharing images, words and sound over the internet offers some consolation in a time of isolation and desolation, but we deceive ourselves, I think, if we imagine that this will ever be an adequate substitute, a ‘like for like’ replacement for all of our bodies being in the same space at the same time.

All of that challenges another phrase that you may well have encountered in the last few weeks: the church is the people not the building. As is often the case, these turn out to be false opposites. Of course, a church building without any people in it is not a church at all. But it’s wrong, I think, to infer that church buildings don’t matter. The Christian faith has, since its earliest days, found it helpful to see certain objects, procedures and, yes, places as set aside for the worship of God. These places ‘where prayer has been valid’ (TS Eliot) help us to worship because that is what they are for, because they aren’t for anything else.

And if the physical locations where we pray and worship matter, so too does the coming together of the people of God not just to see each other’s faces, hear each other’s voices and share each other’s news and ideas, but also to shake each other’s hands and share one bread and one cup.

The physicality of our faith matters. To deny that is to come dangerously close to denying both the incarnation of God in Christ and his victorious resurrection. Yet what we have now is most definitely not nothing. It is good to meet each other in whatever way we can. It is good to reach out to one another by the routes that are open to us. It is good to use our phones and our computers and (if we are permitted) our physical bodies to support and care for one another. I am immensely proud and grateful that we are doing exactly that.

Yet the presence of the risen Christ is more elusive than usual for us this year. We are denied the opportunity to gather together in church and receive the sacrament of Christ’s risen life. Nothing that we do in its place, good though it may be, will ever entirely fill that void. We cannot, in fact, be together without being together, and we pray with deep longing for the time when we will be able to be the gathered people of God, the church in this place, once again.

May God bless you all,