Technology has been a godsend during this crisis, but it is no substitute for being present in a church
25 May 2020 Daily Telegraph
It is 10 years next year that I resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral. We had a bit of a falling out over whether the Occupy protesters ought to be forcibly evicted. My view was that forcible eviction was not the sort of thing the Church should be doing to peaceable protesters.
In my angrier moments, I believed that the cathedral authorities had put the needs of a famous building above the gospel message; that the cathedral had become a bit of an idol, a fetish. Jesus didn’t need fancy buildings, after all. So why do we?
Back then, I would have probably razed all the churches to the ground. Bricks and mortar were an expensive and burdensome encumbrance to the Christian mission, I thought. The Church is the people. These living stones are the important thing, not dead bits of rock.
Well, I have grown up a little since then. And news that the Church of England is about to initiate a review of the number of bishops, dioceses and church buildings they require makes me nervous.
Don’t worry, came the reassurance, it’s just a review of “strategic context” explained one bishop, using that familiar tactic of hiding important developments under the dullest of management speak. “Church of England weighs up cull of bishops”, was how The Sunday Times put it, rather differently. Well, I don’t mind that so much, as long as it is done humanely. It’s the bit about Church buildings that looks particularly ominous to me.
The worry is that this Covid crisis has given the Church leadership an opportunity to free itself from the financial burden of infrequently attended churches. Coming after the Archbishop of Canterbury urged his clergy not to go into their parish churches for prayer – even on their own – but instead to take services over Zoom from their kitchens, it is hard not to be concerned that this latest review will eye up the chance to increase the much cheaper online live-streaming of church services to the detriment of our physical places of worship.
Don’t get me wrong, technology has been a godsend during the coronavirus crisis. My own church in South London has increased its congregation, with people now joining our live-streaming of the Sunday service from places as far away as Manchester and Mauritius.
Families separated by distance can now worship together. And just last week we gathered five heaving trestle tables of food to distribute to the vulnerable members of our community. Church is going well.
But e-Church won’t sustain itself like this forever.
The truth is that online conviviality is founded upon the life that we physically share together, which has its basis within our church building
Our church may not be a looker, especially from the outside. The Luftwaffe substantially reordered it during the Blitz, and we now meet in a Sixties rebuild.
Yet getting back into church was, for that generation, an important act of defiance against the darkness, as it is now for this present one, battling the virus.
Because this physical space has been made holy by the prayers of thousands of people over time, as well as the weddings, baptisms, and parish parties that have been held in them. In the vestry, a long list of rectors reminds me that there has been a church physically rooted in this place since at least 1275. It is this sort of loyalty that has made the Church of England what it is. This is the capital upon which e-Church draws.
But to a certain sort of Christian mindset, all this history and buildings stuff isn’t really proper believing at all. For them, true believing is something that only really takes place inside oneself. It is a personal relationship with Jesus and doesn’t require all the outer accoutrements of priesthood and buildings, even communities themselves. Churches are just rain shelters. The early church had no need of them.
This reforming zeal is a danger to the Church of England. In the tiny hamlet in Northamptonshire where my parents live, there is a beautiful little church over the fields. You might only get six people on a Sunday morning. No one who lives in the community is what my mother suspiciously calls “very religious”.
A team of cleaning ladies lovingly polish the pews, though none of them actually attends services. A chap, new to the village, has taken to fixing the collapsed dry stone wall. Walking the dog up to the church is a daily activity. The bees buzz, the chestnut tree is currently in blossom. I feel closer to God here than anywhere else I know.
And so, I think, do many of those who care for it. Grand cathedrals like St Paul’s will always be big enough to look after themselves. It’s the wonderful quirky little corners of the Church, up the field or on the inner-city estate, that have most to fear from bishops pouring over spreadsheets talking about “strategic context”. If there are to be cuts, let’s start with them.
Canon Dr Giles Fraser is a columnist for Unherd.co