Paul Bickley argues that closing church buildings to public worship is the best way to love our neighbour. 12/01/2021
Shortly after my wife and I were invited to the pastorate of our church, we were having the website redesigned: “I don’t want slick and I don’t want to be church dot TV”, I said. I wanted to resist the pull towards placeless networks, mediated by social platforms, rather than face to face community.
Now you can find us on YouTube every Sunday morning. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
It is therefore with a heavy heart that I find myself in a ‘churches should not be meeting right now’ camp, and not a little mystified that worshipping communities have escaped tighter restrictions in the third lockdown. Like voting in a referendum, we are faced with a range of complex considerations but are ultimately forced into a binary judgment. Let me, therefore, say why I’m ‘voting’ for churches to close – now and ideally voluntarily, without waiting for further changes in the law.
When I use the word ‘church’, I’m using it in the popular but misleading sense of buildings and acts of worship (as in, “Mum, I don’t want to go to church today”). When the New Testament speaks about the church, it adopts a word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the people of God – the ekklesia. In wider culture, ekklesia was used to describe any assembly. Other descriptions and metaphors fill out the theological picture: biological (body), national (a people), civic (citizens), religious (a priesthood), and infrastructural (temple). But all point not toward a building or meeting but toward a human community.
It is sheer historical accident that we use the same English word – church – for this community and the place where it gathers. It’s like using the word ‘house’ to refer both to a family and their dwelling: not wrong, but confusing. The Vulgate New Testament simply Latinised the original (ecclesia). Luther used gemeinde (a local community), not kirche. Tyndale used congregation. While buildings and physical gatherings are by no means irrelevant to the church/congregation, and the latter are particularly significant, the point (not an original one) is that the family can’t be described as ‘closed’ when the house is empty and locked.
And when I say that churches should not meet, I would also say that I am personally grateful that churches are free to make their own decision, rather than simply complying with instruction (although Scotland and Northern Ireland have instructed places of worship to close, and with the Mayor of London and many local authorities asking for the same, one wonders how long churches will retain this freedom). Either way, when churches do defer their gatherings it will be an act of neighbour love. Remember Jesus’ parable about loving neighbours? A man is violently mugged and dumped at the side of the road. A Priest and a Levite see the man, but pass by on the other side. Jesus’ first hearers would have known that the Priest at least would have a technical get–out clause (helping the man might make him ritually unclean, and thus prevent the proper conduct of worship). Nevertheless, what they should do for the sake of love of neighbour is obvious. But it is the Samaritan that sets aside his obligations and opportunities and climbs down into the ditch. Go and do likewise, teaches Jesus (i.e., stop talking about mercy and loving neighbours, and do what obviously should be done).
I know it’s not quite that simple. That we should love our neighbour is not debateable – how we should love them is. Many churches (buildings) will be open, providing essential support to the vulnerable, delivered by volunteers drawn from churches (Christian communities). But now we have a more transmissible variant of the virus the risks have shifted when it comes to public worship. In a narrow corridor, an asymptomatic 25 year–old walks past a 70 year–old undergoing cancer treatment. How vulnerable is he? I’m not going to roll that dice, even if some kind of ‘opportunity’ goes begging.
All that said, these are contextual judgements. What makes sense for 15 people at Eucharist in a cavernous Victorian Church, versus 7 people praying in a modestly proportioned chapel, versus our gathering in a windowless theatre space? I don’t have the answers for everyone, everywhere. I don’t have to work out how to love other people’s neighbours.
Finally, what is it to be open anyway? I would say that the ‘openness’ of community is a factor of the quality of their relationships, and the value placed on hospitality, invitation and care. After all, there are physical gatherings that are relationally closed. Practically, it’s quite hard to make any physical meeting during COVID ‘open’ in the fuller sense, but I think – hope – that some of those who have joined our community during this time have experienced genuine hospitality, if only in friendly faces on Zoom.
Are things lost when we don’t meet? Of course they are. The Roman Catholic church, for instance, teaches that it is impossible to experience the Real Presence without being, well, really present (“there are no sacraments on the internet”). There is something that we could call the sacrament of community, which is usually better realised when we can be physical present to each other. In the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul talks about his longing to see his fellow believers in intimate terms…
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well… you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children… But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you… For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
Paul clearly missed this congregation. More than that, he thought that their growth, their flourishing, and their relationships were one of the greatest ‘rewards’ of following Jesus. But while he couldn’t be with them, he made the most of the communication technology available to him. Those letters, including their articulations of loneliness and longing, are now the Church’s Scripture. Sacred things are said and done in ways which might seem less than ideal at the time.
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