I talk about the importance of broadcasting our services a great deal, so perhaps it’s will be a surprise to you when I admit I haven’t actually been watching many services online over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, and first its closure of churches, and now its ongoing limitation on the services that we can conduct in person.
In fact, apart from the services I’ve been editing for St Mary’s – where I’ve been trying with a c.90% success rate to edit out all the bits where I’ve misspoken in a sermon, or dropped vital a piece of computer equipment half way through, or heard a child’s demanding shout from the living room and then said something rude in response – apart from the process of chopping bits out of those, I’ve only watched one online service since March the 15th.
That was the service for St Albans Day, broadcast from St Albans cathedral, when we decided that St Mary’s wouldn’t broadcast a service itself in order to encourage our congregation to engage with the virtual Albantide pilgrimage. And, despite that service having the kind of production values that come with a diocesan budget, rather than the strictures of parish finances that mean we got our camera second hand off ebay and the editing is all done by (un)willing volunteers, I had to switch off the service half way through as it was just too painful to continue watching.
In particular, seeing someone celebrate the Eucharist on their own apart from a camera operator was just too lacking in the physical substance of what we seek to do in all our worship; which is to join together as a community to celebrate as the body of Christ in order that we might more fully become the body of Christ. That is why churches were built, as houses of prayer, for people to be formed by the action of praying.
Something of that feeling of awkward lacking; of an absence still persists in our worship life, I feel, no matter how engaging and innovative our approach to gathering in worship under the conditions of Covid-19 has become. Whether we are meeting in church yet socially distanced or logged on to a zoom or viewing a youtube video, whatever we do seems to me to lack some of the physical joys of meeting all together in worship, with all of our hearts, minds and of course all our voices raised to the Lord.
And that highlights that whatever we do exists as an uneasy compromise of accessibility. It reveals the fact that whatever we have done, before the pandemic, was under the same condition: where the needs of some were always met less well than they ought. Where all in the assembly are not now but were not then able to be together.
For some people, broadcasting so many services online has hugely increased the accessibility of our churches’ worship. It’s now possible for people who did not find it easy to enter a church building because of the physical limitations of those buildings and the limitations of church leaders’ understandings of their needs to access a far greater range of spiritual resources than ever before, and the closure of churches to public worship has helped those of us who do not, we think to ourselves, find it hard to enter church buildings to recognise with a new humility and empathy the needs of our brothers and sisters for a greater prioritisation of their access to our shared holy places now and in the future.
For others, whether or not they are now technically able to come into a church building and attend a service, the restrictions around what we are able to do in person have made the church far more inaccessible, through barriers of organisation, technological familiarity, income, and the availability of their time.
We are trying so hard, and yet this reveals what we cannot do.
We are both doing new, exciting and excellent things with our church’s mission and ministry under difficult circumstances and we are also able to lament that we cannot gather together as we would once have wished to; or pretend any longer that our approach to the accessibility of church worship was one of perfect inclusion, let alone of the equality that we should be seeking and which lies far beyond this inclusion.
To have been driven out of our church buildings, for a shorter or longer time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic is also to have been driven out of that way of thinking that allowed us to say we are, in those buildings, open and welcoming to all. It should perhaps cause us to re-examine how comfortable we became, seated in the courts of our temples and calling other people to come in to us.
The mixed emotional legacies of the way the Covid-19 pandemic have affected church communities remind me of the story of the building of the temples in the Hebrew Bible. Because of course Solomon’s temple – the place he built for the people of Israel and the vulnerable who came to the Land to intercede with God; Solomon’s surety of his own place of honour before the Lord – did become a heap of ruins. It was destroyed by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar and the leaders of the people of Judah carried off to Babylon. To a strange land where they could no longer sing the Lord’s song.
And its successor building, which the Romans eventually destroyed after Jesus’ lifetime, well when that was erected in the time of Ezra at the order of Cyrus of Persia, it was put up with a great shout of joy to God that could still not be separated and distinguished from the sound of the weeping of those who had seen the old temple in its glory.
That kind of song of intermingled praise and pain is perhaps the only one we can sing in the public ministry of our churches at the moment. That’s not entirely true from a legal point of view, but let’s not let the Covid risk assessment intrude on the metaphor. We have accomplished a huge amount in terms of our adaptability to unforeseeable situations and technological innovations yet we are still anticipating a season of trial, and uncertainty, and of further grief to come. We have more months of pandemic ahead, but beyond that, a continued reassessment of how best to rebuild the Lord’s house in our strange land.
The way we worship in our churches binds together triumph and tragedy, in the light of a shocking, confusing and strange new future. Perhaps that is fitting, for it is like the cross … and the resurrection itself, which was forged in of the confrontation between death and new life; which carries still the taint of tragedy and the hope of transformation; and which transforms Christian communities to be signs of God’s glory in the world throughout its troubles and pains.
How shall we (re) build the Lord’s house in a strange, socially distanced land? How will we be shaped in our churches by the honesty as well as the hope of the cross?