Fr Andrew writes
CAN A CLOSED CHURCH BE ALIVE AND ACTIVE?!
Announcing the total closure of churches in London, in their letter on Sunday 22nd March, the Bishops whose dioceses include the London Boroughs (the Dioceses of London, South, Rochester and Chelmsford) wrote “The Church continues to be alive and active, but our buildings must close in London”.
What that quote suggests is the long held, and true, idea that the Church is not a building but the people. Or put slightly differently, and a little more theologically densely, the essence of the identity of the Church is to be found in the company of the baptised. That’s why the Bishops can say that whilst buildings are closed the Church continues to be alive.
We do however use the word ‘church’ interchangeably for the building and the people. That is born of the reality that the identity of Christians is bound up in the fact that we meet together. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, ‘do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews XX).
Church buildings are more than just community meeting places, they are also meeting places of heaven and earth, the divine and human: they are, as Jacob said of the place where he encountered God in a dream, ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28.17). He named the place Bethel (‘Beth’, meaning ‘house’ in Hebrew, ‘el’ one of the words for God).
Church buildings matter because they are places where we encounter God and one another. As the little rhyme that can be enacted using your fingers and hands: ‘This is the church, this is the steeple; open the doors and here are the people’
Meeting together is part of what makes us the Church, as in the Greek word for Church, the ecclesia, which literally means the ‘called out’. We are called out from darkness into light through baptism, and we are called out of our daily routines to meet together in the Lord’s name. Even in times of brutal, murderous persecution Christian met together, sometimes hidden away in catacombs (underground burial chambers in and around Rome).
The key point is that we meet not where we meet. And that is where the Coronavirus outbreak is devastating for us. Distancing ourselves from one another is counter-Christian – or should be!
Social distancing and isolation pose deep questions to us:
· how are we the Church when we have no church [building]?
· if the central act of worship of the Church - the Eucharist – (or any act of worship for that matter) depends on a gathering of people how can ‘virtual worship’ really be worship?
· put really bluntly: is your Christian identity more about your church building or about your membership of the Church, the People of God, the company of the baptised?
I want to suggest that in a time like this, which is so far from the norm, we have to look for ways of connecting and being church that are little contemplated in normal times. And here are three pointers I want to offer:
1. Spiritual Communion It is essentially a spiritual disposition or attitude in prayer that seeks to unite ourselves intimately with Christ. I am going to write more about this in another pastoral letter soon, as I believe it is very important for us at a time like this;
2. Mystical Union Being united means being one. We can remain one with someone else even if we are not physically grafted to them. This is true every Sunday already. Throughout the world the Church offers worship, uniting us in praise and adoration each Sunday; we’re not in the same physical place with all Christians, yet we are one with them. I do not stop being a parent to my child just because we’re not in the same room all the time;
3. Koinonia That’s the Greek word for ‘fellowship’ and ‘communion’ within the Body of Christ, the Church. Deep koinonia is reflected in how well we know one another in church, how we connect and how we ‘bear one another’s burdens’ as St Paul puts it (Galatians 6.2) and how we ‘bear with one another’ (Colossians 3.13). Whilst there will always be those who want to connect with the church anonymously – although their names are known by God! – knowing peoples’ names is a good reflection of the connectedness of a church.
This coronavirus outbreak can and will change the church. The challenge is that it change us for the better, that through the adversity we come out the other side as a church that has deeper yearning to be united to Christ, to the whole church globally and locally to one another.
Those Bishops are right: the Church is alive and active. I know that from the messages I have been getting as people connect with live streamed worship, reflect on Bible texts, offer to pray for the locality, offer practical help to the social isolated and drop off food to those who are stuck at home – all that is happening in our Church – not the building, that’s shut, but amongst the people who call upon his name.
With thanks for our fellowship in the Gospel.
Do remember you can connect further through the Minster Website for information and links www.croydonminster.org , via the Minster Facebook (where you can see acts of worship streamed) and Twitter @croydonminster