The Coronavirus lockdown has prompted a great deal of reflection in the Church, and not a little disagreement. At the heart of this reflection and disagreement there is one comparatively simple little question: does it matter that we cannot meet together in our church buildings?
The answer to that question is, in my view, yes. It matters, and it matters quite a lot. What we are able to do online and on the phone is important and valuable. Some of it at least will continue beyond the end of the lockdown, its worth now well-established. But that does not mean that we can dispense with meeting together in the church building altogether, even when the crisis has passed. As a number of you have been asking me about this in the last week or so, I feel I should explain a little more about why I think this is so.
The most important reason is that I do not believe that the Christian life, whether in the worship of God or God’s mission in the world in which we share, can be entirely reduced to the cognitive. Cognition has to do with the things that go on in our minds – our perceptions, our beliefs, our thoughts, our reflections, our intentions and so on. All of these things are quite easy to transfer out of the church building and onto the internet. We can see each other, speak to each other, show each other work that we have prepared earlier. We can even sing. Information technology can help with these things because they are all able to be reduced to information.
But the same is not true of a great deal that is important to the Christian way of life. We consecrate buildings for Christian worship not because we believe that God is any more present there than anywhere else, but because by setting aside a special place for that purpose and only that purpose we underline the importance that we place on worship and we help ourselves to focus on that worship into the bargain. To say that we can worship God anywhere and not just in church is true, but in the same way (I think) as it is true to say that we can cut our grass with a pair of scissors. Using objects and elements set aside for divine worship, and doing it in a building set aside for divine worship, is not a way of saying that God is limited by or contained within those objects and elements and spaces. It is, rather, both an integral part of our worship and a precious aid to our prayers.
The Christian faith is not one in which physical, bodily things do not matter, nor one in which they are seen as inferior to spiritual things. God in Christ becomes bodily present in the world, in the historical Jesus and in the Eucharist. God in Christ rose again to bodily life, returning from the grave to offer us a share in his eternal life.
And our bodies matter, too. The Bible tells us that they are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ – not our minds, note, but our bodies. Collectively we are not the ‘mind of Christ’ but the ‘body of Christ’. We are called to be a people in whom God is physically present in the world. That is what it means to be the Church.
So it follows, I think, that gathering together physically in a place that has been set aside and designed for the worship of God really does matter. For as long as we cannot, I will continue to grieve the loss. What we are able to do now is not by any means nothing, but it does not take the place of what we have lost, nor should we pretend or imagine that it can.
In the next few weeks and months we expect a gradual return to the church building to be permitted. I will keep you posted on that as best I am able. In the meantime, I for one will be longing for it, praying for it, looking forward to it. I hope you will too.
May God bless you all,