Some suggestions for how the Church might have responded to the current pandemic in a way that would be less pastorally distressing.
1) Acknowledge what we have lost.
For me, the most frustrating thing about the Church of England’s initial response to the need for closure of church buildings and the suspension of public worship was that it didn’t acknowledge the loss to the faithful. The abrupt end to in-person gatherings and most particularly to the celebration of the sacraments was an enormous loss, to put it mildly. And it was abrupt: one Sunday we were mourning the withholding of the chalice and discussing the theological doctrine of concomitance, and by Tuesday 17th March, following the Prime Minister’s pre-lockdown advice of social distancing on Monday evening, public worship had been suspended with immediate effect. The Catholic Church in England and Wales, meanwhile, continued with public weekday Mass until Friday, giving people chance to go and make their Communion in the knowledge that it would be their last for a while.
We were told we needed to become a ‘radically different kind of Church’, and reassured with the now-clichéd phrase that the Church is not about the buildings but the people, so there was no need for sadness at the closure of the holy places that mean so much to so many people. We would simply move online; clergy everywhere were desperately buying tripods and working out the quickest way to upload to YouTube and educating themselves and their parishioners in how to use Zoom. I am not criticising the enormous amount of work that has gone into sharing worship online, by the way. It is absolutely a vital lifeline to those who find spiritual nourishment in watching a streamed Eucharist or listening to morning prayer. But we need to be able to state unequivocally that watching an act of worship via video link, even quasi-participating via Zooms (don’t get me started on the tyranny of the enforced mute…), is not the same as attending Mass. Not even close.
For a thousand reasons: because we are created by God as physical beings, body and soul, and to think that it is the same or even preferable through a screen is a kind of technological Gnosticism; because why have we bothered until now if we could simply have moved online with the advent of YouTube? Because this is not a question of ‘working from home’ in quite the same way as the secular world understands it, as the sacraments cannot be confected or received virtually or in any way but in physical presence; because pretending it is the same is to deny the grief felt by all of us who cannot gather for the breaking of bread. It’s a bizarre kind of spiritual gaslighting which alienates us from our own Church.
2) Be kind, and find ways to feed Christ’s sheep.
Letting people grieve is an act of kindness because it acknowledges the value of what has been lost. And so, now is not the time to meditate on the historical norm of infrequent reception of the Sacrament among the laity, or to declare that the modern Church has become too eucharistic and that the Parish Communion movement in the Church of England was a mistake which has made us all too reliant on weekly reception. Frankly, if the Church is not gathering as the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ each week, we are not the Church. It is a pause and not the end; but we need to be able to say that it is a pause and that we have not simply ‘moved online’, particularly when a significant proportion of our congregations are not online (and I commend the CofE ‘Daily Hope’ phone line for that purpose.) If people are mourning the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, who are we to say ‘well actually, in mediaeval times…’, or that normative Sunday worship in the CofE should be (God help us) Choral Mattins? Be gentle. There is a time and place for those debates, and it’s not now.
My personal and perhaps controversial view is that in these times the Church should be finding ways to ensure that the laity can still receive Holy Communion. I am not advocating public Masses. However, it troubles me that almost without a second thought nearly all Anglican squeamishness about private Masses has gone out of the window, and unless you happen to be a clergy spouse or family, you’re on your own in this period of ‘long Mass-less-ness’ (to use a phrase of Rose Macaulay). And there should of course be theological reflection about how receiving Communion might look, divorced from a liturgical context, and whether it is indeed advisable, if it would mean some kind of appointment system whereby those who wished could – with appropriate distancing and hygiene policies – receive Communion privately, so as to avoid public gatherings. I am thinking in particular of how an ice cream parlour in the centre of town recently reopened, serving through a tiny window to a socially-distanced queue on the street. Ice cream is not an essential; the sacraments are, and it would be pertinent for the Church to act as though this were true.
Yes, perhaps an arrangement like this would trivialise the Sacrament, making it too transactional, too distinct from the liturgical and corporate act where it is properly located. And course there would be a particular risk to the clergy of both infection and transmission, and I understand the concerns of those who say the risk is too great (but then, so is our pain). It seems to me, though, that some kind of scheduled sacramental reception is not without precedent: those Anglicans who go in for Confession generally do it in private by appointment with a priest. I also think of how, in ‘normal times’, the Church in her wisdom provides for the reserved Sacrament to be taken to the sick and the dying. It is a way of showing the love of Christ and also affording them dignity; if they cannot get to church, the Church will come to them. And when we are ill, we need it most: the Eucharist is a sacrament of healing just as much as anointing. Mental illness is skyrocketing under lockdown, and I think if any of us of faith have ever needed to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, our food for the perilous journey that is a pandemic, it is now.
3) Help people to pray.
Online worship is a good and holy thing, for those who find solace in it. But if, as I have suggested, it isn’t ‘really’ church, and if church on Sunday is for a large number of people either what feeds their prayer life during the rest of the week or indeed the only time each week they actually pray (and I suspect the number of people for whom the latter is true is higher than we like to think), what most people need is help with their private prayer. When I see how much work has gone into producing recorded and streamed worship, I sometimes wonder whether all of that time and effort and clerical expertise and formation might be better spent helping people to pray, and teaching people about prayer. I feel sure that is happening too, of course; it’s just that naturally we hear less about it. But we need to remember that most people don’t know how to pray, beyond how they pray in church, and I think the way we pray in church is not actually a very good model for private prayer. What I think most people need at the moment is not yet more streamed services to suit every shade of the theological spectrum or liturgical preference, but spiritual directors, prayer companions, ‘soul friends’. Even (remote) prayer groups or ‘accountability partners’: people with whom we can be honest about how prayer is going, if it all, and the different ways we are praying.
There are of course a thousand different things to try: the Daily Office, especially when streamed or Zoomed by a parish, can certainly be part of that, as could creating a prayer space as somewhere to ‘go to church’ when that’s physically impossible, and praying with the rosary or a prayer rope, the Jesus prayer or other forms of contemplative prayer, Lectio Divina and the Examen. However, now is not the time for tinkering with endless spiritual practices in the hope that one will be the right fit, if we could only find the one and only thing that works for us. It is not a question of suiting individual needs and wants; the liturgy teaches us that, and such a consumerist approach is at odds with the necessary discipline underlying the life of faith. Instead, for now we need to find something that (vaguely) works for us and stick to it, and trust that God will do the rest. It is my hope and prayer that God may use this time to deepen our private prayer lives, in ways that will be carried over into the post-pandemic world. But he can only do that if we let him, and find ways to support one another in our lonely lives of prayer until such a time as we can be together once again.