Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

A few days ago, our vicar sent me a link to aYouTube video, which made me laugh. It also made me think - or, at least, to look at my feelings, and dredge up the thoughts which had been lurking in the dark corners of my mind.

I was sent it, as a joke, because he’d asked me to look at ways we might reopen our church building - first for ‘private prayer’ then, later I assume, for ‘worship’ - in these days of Covid-19 and social distancing. I won’t go into detail but, basically, a church building like ours is designed to ‘cram’ lots of people into a relatively small space: the opposite of what’s required to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus. The more I think, and calculate, and draw, the more complicated and the more, ‘de-humanising’ and intractable the problem seems to become...

And ridiculous; especially that.

If we keep strictly to the 2m rule, and also expect that someone, anyone, sitting near the platform might need the toilet at some point, we can fit a grand total of eleven individuals - or somewhat more if we allow ‘lockdown bubbles’ to huddle together - but never more than about 10% of the church’s ‘capacity’. If you decide not to allow people to leave to go to the toilet, and insist that the first arrivals fill the church from the front, then you can fit about sixty people. How do you select which small percentage can come on any given Sunday? I have to say, I find this model of ‘church’ most unattractive and unlikely, therefore, to attract many people to ‘hear the good news’.

And so, I begin to wonder whether we’re truly asking the right questions. And, perhaps more importantly, whether we’re even asking them for the right reasons.

We are accustomed to one basic model for ‘church’... It’s very ancient - in essence it goes back 1,500 years or so, to the time when Christianity became part of the ‘state’ and respectable, rather than something subversive which had to hide in the shadows for fear of persecution. At that point, meeting together in large public buildings became possible, and then, it became ‘what we do’ - and I’m not sure we’ve ever really had occasion to question it - until now.

There was an almighty rush, once lockdown happened, to transfer as much as possible of our church’s activities ‘online’ - Sunday services went onto YouTube, other activities which ‘require’ more interaction into Zoom. The aim being, it seemed, to disrupt ‘what we do’ as little as possible. Despite no longer being part of the leadership, I could imagine a few of the questions which led to these decisions - some voiced, some just held in the back of the mind - things like:

How are we going to keep people ‘fed’?
How are we going to keep people ‘engaged’?
How can we not let people down?
How can we fulfil their continued expectations?
How are we going to make sure people don’t just lose interest and drift away?
Even, perhaps on some level, how do we continue to justify our existence as ‘church’ and church leaders?

And now, as the lockdown is beginning to ease (perhaps too fast to avoid a second peak, but that’s a conversation for another time and place) planning for what we might call a ‘phased return to normal’ has begun. And that has disturbed me quite profoundly - I didn’t do much sleeping last night.

Members of ‘the church’ are very fond of saying ‘it’s not about the building, it’s all about the people’ but, from my perspective, what’s happening now ‘gives the lie’ to that statement - all that has happened since lockdown has been about replicating, as far as possible, what happens in the church building on a Sunday, and the majority of planning now is for finding a way to get back to doing ‘what we’ve always done’ (even if, actually, it wasn’t quite ‘always - but more on that in a moment perhaps). So, actually, the church building, and meeting there, turns out to be all-important in our conception of church and what it means.

Everyone said, early on in the lockdown, that we needed to ‘reimagine’ life ready for afterwards, and to aim at a ‘new normal’ - but what’s actually happening is an (understandable on one level) eagerness to return to ‘normal’ (without the ‘new’) or any real effort to examine whether ‘normal’ is the same thing as ‘right’.

The ‘model’ of church we have now only really began when the church ‘came out of the shadows’ in which it had existed (and, to be honest, thrived) prior to adherence to Christianity becoming ‘legal’ (and then, not much later, ‘required’). It’s a model based on a hierarchy, dependent on church being part of the machinery of the state, and is largely about ‘top-down’ control... Whatever platitudes people say to the contrary, that’s how it was set up and its purpose was to control the populace, by means of the carrots of salvation and heaven and the sticks of damnation and hell... And, down the centuries, that was ‘enforced’ in a variety of ways. And we in the Church of England live with all sorts of vestiges of that - bishops in the House of Lords, and only ‘priests’ being allowed to ‘preside’ at ‘communion’ - as well as a lot of other stuff.

One problem with this ‘model’ of church is that it is fundamentally unattractive - for many decades now, in ‘viral’ terms, the ‘infection rate’ has been less than one - without an Holy Inquisition (or at least social pressure to 'conform') the thing is slowly shrinking. Consequently, to seek to rush back to this model of church strikes me as crackers. In my opinion, the situation begs at least a rethink; a completely fresh vision; a new way of being, and doing, church.

In some ways, Covid-19 has forced the church back into the shadows - the threat of infection has prevented meeting ‘in person’ in church buildings. Yes, there have been ‘on-line’ services which resemble ‘normal’ church - and which, for me, feel very similar to a typical Sunday morning pre-lockdown - illustrating in a quite vivid way just how ‘odd’ and artificial our ‘normal’ church ‘services’ really are - as well as how little they truly ‘engage’ the congregation in what’s happening - ‘church’ is largely about watching a ‘priesthood’ (in which I include all those ‘ministering’ - be they ordained ministers or members of the band) perform. But we have been ‘being church’ in the shadows - meeting via Zoom (other on-line services are available) in groups of varying size to socialise, to pray, to learn, to support one another, and also ‘reaching out’ to others in acts of service - providing meals for homeless now housed in hotels, shopping for those shielding, listening on the telephone to those struggling with mental health issues in the face of the virus and lockdown, and so on. Personally, other than the ‘social’ aspect of Sunday mornings (and other meetings) - i.e. meeting friends in person - I haven’t missed ‘Sunday church’ at all. And this ‘new’ model of ‘church’ does seem to be being remarkably successful in ‘being’ - and I don’t think that success has much connection to the Sunday morning YouTube performance.

So, I wonder whether we’re actually asking the wrong questions. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking, at all, ‘how do we get back to normal?’ but rather ‘how should we be church?’ - with that opening up entirely new vistas and absolutely no ideas being off the table (including abandoning buildings and ordained priesthoods). What sort of church might God want? What did Jesus, and Peter, and Paul, envisage almost 2,000 years ago? How have we allowed that to be ‘perverted’ by worldly issues - for instance the human desire for power and control amongst other things? Are there things we should repent of (i.e. seek to think differently about, to use the words in their original sense)? And, in that case, how do we ‘get back to’ something more like what the Apostles envisaged, (unencumbered by 2,000 years of, often unfortunate, history)?

Where do we think God wants us to be, as a church?

This may be our best (or only?) chance, not just in a generation, but in hundreds and hundreds of years, to completely ‘reimagine’ church - so let’s not squander it in our rush to return to what’s familiar and ‘safe’ (even if, in terms of longevity at least, it really isn’t safe!).

God bless you!

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2020