Overlooking the churchyard was a residential home for elderly people. A number of them had rooms that looked out on the medieval church in its beautiful setting. One day, I had to be away. It was my colleague’s rest day. So the church remained locked and the bell silent. Next morning as I walked into town I bumped into a couple of women who lived in the home. I hadn’t met them before. They stopped me, looking solicitous.
‘Are you all right, Vicar?’ they inquired. ‘We were worried about you.’
‘I’m fine, thank you. But why do you ask?’
‘Oh, it’s just that you weren’t at your prayers yesterday. We always notice you walking across to church from the vicarage and listen out for the bell. We thought there must be something wrong when we didn’t see you.’
It was nearly forty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that encounter. I was a young incumbent and had a lot to learn. Without realising it, in five minutes those good women taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. It was that when you are a priest of the Church of England, you are there for the whole parish, not simply your congregants. You are a public representative of God, the Christian faith and the national church. And when you go into church to say your prayers, you take the parish with you in mind and heart as you lay before the Almighty the life of the community you live in and serve in God’s name. You may be alone in the building. But you’re always engaging in an act of public prayer. Because you do this on behalf of the parish, it’s an act of common prayer. And you are noticed!
This witness is part of what we’ve learned to call public faith. It’s built into the Church of England’s understanding of itself as a national church whose parish system ensures that there is ‘a Christian presence in every community’ with a duty of care to all who live there whatever their faith affiliation. The incumbent belongs to the visible sacral, social and legal symbol-system that connects the church building and the geographical parish to the persona of the ‘parson’. And this is what gives the witness of priest-in-church-and-parish its public character in worship, pastoral care and outreach.
Which brings me to the lockdown of our churches during the Coronavirus emergency. I haven’t blogged about this before because I did not want to make the life of our bishops and clergy more difficult than it already is at this demanding time. I realise it’s contentious, and ill-tempered spats on social media don’t help. But reading Bishop Peter Selby’s article ‘Is Anglicanism Going Private?’ in this week’s Tablet (£) has reinforced my original belief that the decision to prohibit (or strongly dissuade - which is it?) the parish clergy from going into their locked churches to say their prayers is fundamentally misguided. I’m sorry to say that I think it risks compromising the Church’s public witness during this crisis.
For this reason I have signed a letter in today’s Times (£ - but go to the end of this blog). It suggests that this policy ‘is a failure of the Church’s responsibility to the nation, stifling our prophetic witness and defence of the poor’. As we know, the clergy are regarded by the Government as ‘key workers’ who are explicitly permitted to enter their buildings during the course of their duties. So there is no question of challenging the law. Our concerns are more theological and pastoral. As Bishop Selby says, ‘our churches are not just optional when useful and available but are signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation’ (my italics). Our letter speaks about church buildings ‘whose architecture, symbolism and history represents the consecration of our public life’. So we are urging the bishops at their gathering this week to change their current policy, and ask that ‘the processes and thinking which led to these decisions’ should be openly debated through the Church’s synodical structures.
Let me make four points about this. The first is that I do not doubt that the bishops acted for the best of reasons. They are concerned about public safety like everyone else. They want clergy to demonstrate responsibility in complying with the lockdown regulations and to show solidarity with the public. They are right to insist that priests should not be thought of as taking advantage of their position in ways not open (literally) to lay people.
Secondly, nothing in our letter or this blog is meant to disparage the wonderful work being done by parish clergy across the land during this crisis. I want to pay tribute to my own parish priest here. Whether it’s the streaming of services, producing resources for prayer and reflection, maintaining pastoral contact with parishioners or catalysing and contributing to local voluntary efforts in support of the vulnerable and needy, the imagination and inventiveness of our clergy has been hugely impressive. They deserve our warmest thanks.
Thirdly, there is no quarrel with the decision to suspend services of worship and close church buildings even for personal prayer. This is a clear matter of public safety, and is consistent with how all public gathering spaces have been regulated in this crisis. I did not support the plea made during Holy Week to open up our church buildings for members of the public to engage in private devotion on Easter Day. The risks would have been too high.
It comes down to this. I believe that even during this emergency, parish priests should do all in their power to keep their churches in use, even when the doors are locked. I mean that clergy should continue to ‘inhabit’ them by maintaining the sacred activity for which they were built, which is the offering of prayer. Whether it’s the eucharist, the daily office or simple acts of reflection through scripture and silence, it’s keeping the soul of the building alive that matters. To walk away from our church buildings, even temporarily, is in Peter Selby’s words a worrying sign that we may have reached ‘a decisive point in the retreat of the Church of England from the public sphere to the private realm’.
Our churches are the most visible tool of mission that we have. At times of threat, people instinctively turn towards them for solace and strength. They are places to lay burdens of worry, sorrow and despair, calm the spirit and find peace and hope. It’s a cruel feature of this emergency that this cannot take place in any corporate way. But it can still happen by engaging the imagination and the spirit. The church building is always there: inspiring, steady, reliable, a potent symbol of God’s presence among us, and of a community of faith and care for whom it is the primary focus of life together. But its witness needs a human presence if it’s to be effective. It needs the heartbeat of its rhythm of prayer to help sustain its community in hope. Like the high priests of old who bore the people on their hearts as they went alone into the holy place, the incumbent praying in church on behalf of his or her people is a beautiful and eloquent symbol of something deep within the human psyche.
Representative priesthood, public witness and the symbolic function of sacred space are rich ideas but they are not unduly mysterious. The spiritual potential in knowing that the priest is at prayer in church shouldn’t be underestimated. Far from the incumbent invoking the privilege of holy orders in order to do something disallowed to lay people, the representative character of prayer turns it into a profound act of service to the parish.
‘Those who live around’, the meaning of the word paroikia, may or may not be aware that their priest is doing this for them, and in an important sense, with them. But whether they are aware or not isn’t the point. What matters is that the incumbent sees himself or herself, not as a private individual but as a representative person who goes into church to serve. Liturgy is literally an act of service. And whatever expression it takes, formal, informal, traditional, contemporary, virtual or face to face, in the sacred space or outside it, all Church of England worship ultimately derives its validity from the church building and the geographical parish, the twin visible foci of the incumbent’s ministry as Anglicanism understands it.
Which is why the bishops’ decision is not so much distressing as baffling. It’s a lazy binary to perpetuate the cliché about how ‘the church isn’t buildings but people’. The truth is that it’s both. Ask parishioners! Sacred buildings work so well as numinous symbols because they gather up and bring into transcendent perspective the whole life of human communities whose tragedies and triumphs, fears and longings, hopes and aspirations are embodied and cherished within them. Holistic mission always means grasping the ‘both-ands’ of the material and spiritual dimensions of an incarnational way of ministering. To lock our church doors against the very people set aside to represent this servant ministry and put it into practical effect makes no sense.
How institutions behave in crises is always a big test not only of their resilience but their virtue. History will judge whether the reputation of the Church of England has suffered as a result of its response to this emergency. Its verdict may not be kind if Peter Selby is right that we are sliding ever further in the direction of a privatised, congregation-centered existence. As our letter says, we must look again at the assumptions behind this policy. And as a matter of good theology and practice, we must allow our priests inside our churches and let their prayers breathe the prayer of the living Spirit back into our beloved holy places once again.
Here is the full text of the letter (with the full - and growing - list of signatories).