Living as a Church in 'lockdown'
“The Church continues to be alive and active, but our buildings must close”.
So reads the notice outside St Giles and St Matthew’s and on our website since mid-March. It was from this time that public worship was suspended and church buildings closed by the Church of England due to the Coronavirus Crisis. So in what way can the Church continue to be alive and active during this unprecedented time of national emergency?
Perhaps we find part of the answer by looking back towards the earliest days of the Church as described in Acts and in St Paul’s letters. Under fear of arrest, the disciples of Jesus met together in the ‘Upper Room’ of a house (Acts 1.13) and in Romans 16.3-5 there is the church meeting in the house of Aquila and Priscilla. In fact the Greek word for church is ‘Ekklesia’ which means ‘gathering’ or specifically, ‘an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting’. The church is the people gathered, not the building that houses that gathering. So how has the church brought people together to worship and pray during a time when social distancing, self-isolation and shielding are being practised to ‘protect the NHS’ and to ‘save lives’? Just as the early Church relied on a network of Christians meeting together by word of mouth in the homes of believers, we are now meeting from our own homes by means of the internet. Our first online service was held on 29th March, Passion Sunday, using Skype, and we have continued to meet for worship as a church since then, including our usual Holy Week services culminating in Easter Day Holy Communion. The worship has been led by Revd Helen and Revd Michael from the Rectory and shared by a congregation joining the meetings from home through their tablets, smart phones or PCs. Those who have been unable to attend the meetings have been joining with the church in spirit from home through their own times of prayer, reflection and worship.
How have we participated in the Eucharist when not physically together? We have looked to the guidance given by the Church of England on Spiritual Communion and Coronavirus which explains that “The Book of Common Prayer instructs us that if we offer ourselves in penitence and faith, giving thanks for the redemption won by Christ crucified, we may truly ‘eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ’, although we cannot receive the sacrament physically in ourselves.” To know that this is possible when we are not physically able to meet is a great reassurance and provides comfort at a time when we are perhaps most in need of it. Meeting over Skype or other video call technology undoubtedly provides technical challenges and difficulties at times, and there is the question of equality of access, however, it does provide a way to meet virtually ‘face to face’ and to join together in worship when this would otherwise be impossible. Eight hundred years ago, when churches were instructed to close in Britain by Pope Innocent III in a dispute with King John, there was no opportunity for people to gather virtually and the prohibition on services lasted for six years. Moreover, by services becoming more prevalent and accessible online through live-streaming and also on television and radio since the ‘lockdown’ began, there is the likelihood that more non-churchgoers are able to access and experience Christian worship, perhaps for the first time. We also begin to appreciate the fact that we are able to gather as a church without the barrier of persecution. To be unable to enter our church buildings at present brings us into greater awareness of and solidarity with Christians around the world who are persecuted daily for their faith and who are unable to worship publically. By comparison, the fact that we are still able to meet online and worship freely without censorship, restriction or fear of retribution is something we can be thankful for.