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UK: What should good Anglicans do: stay at home, or join a crowd?

UK: What should good Anglicans do: stay at home, or join a crowd?

By Andrew Symes,
June 8, 2020

I confess I don't understand what is going on here. Perhaps that marks me out straight away as too cerebral, too linear in my thinking, too wedded to an outdated 'modernist' mentality. To me it seems like a contradiction that doesn't make sense, but no doubt I can be educated as to my straitjacket thinking.

Up until now, the Church of England leadership has been extremely cautious about permitting any action which might potentially contribute to the spread of Covid 19. The regulations (later downgraded to "guidance") made it clear that church buildings initially should not be used at all, for gatherings of any kind, or even for the private prayer or recording of services by clergy. This was to ensure that churches could in no way incubate the virus, and to show solidarity with the rest of the population who were having to stay away from all but essential work.

As the lockdown has begun to be eased, other sectors in society, and indeed some church groups have lobbied the government to allow churches to open for funerals, weddings and carefully controlled worship services, but the Church of England has been reticent, preferring to listen more to the voices of those concerned that any unnecessary face to face meeting of people could risk the lives of the vulnerable.

A letter to clergy from the Archbishop of York on 7th May gives detail on how individuals can enter churches for cleaning and essential maintenance, urging clergy to alway remember that "safety is paramount". Then, as recently as June 3rd a document was released from Church House, for "planning purposes", on how churches might be reopened "when circumstances allow" -- now thought to be 15th June.

"It is anticipated that only individual prayer will be allowed when the church is open to the public. No public worship, streamed or otherwise, should take place whilst the building is open to visitors...Please put notices on the door reminding people about hygiene and physical distancing measures, including stressing the critical importance of using the hand sanitiser...It is best not to leave out things that can be touched repeatedly by different individuals [eg bibles and leaflets]... The lighting of candles with reusable lighters or similar should not be encouraged".

Two comments can be made on this initially. First, since when has the priority of hygiene been applied to the work of the church and the mission of the gospel ? Even if we accept that churches have been right to close for a season, it surely is theologically incorrect and a poor witness at the very least to say that our physical safety should be our primary concern? There has been a plethora of criticism on this blanket 'close all churches' policy, much of which can be found here.

Secondly, the Church's official advice on prayer in church buildings says nothing about the purpose of prayer or offers any kind of acknowledgement of God. It reads as if it has been written by a health and safety officer with no knowledge of, or interest in Christian faith other than the trappings of the physical sanctuary space. Or perhaps it has not been written primarily for vicars and lay people who attend church, but for government and healthcare officials, to demonstrate the church's compliance with the lockdown regulations.

The Church of England's main official message to the nation, then, has not been to resist secular narratives by pointing to God and encourage faith in Christ, hope in life beyond the grave, and prayer in the midst of the pandemic. Rather it has been to communicate the seriousness of the health emergency and the part the church is playing in locking down, being alert and saving lives, even if it means denying thousands of people all over the country the chance to quietly make use of church buildings for prayer and worship.

But now, in parallel with this extreme almost paranoid caution which has shut churches and caused millions to stay indoors for weeks, we are told by a Bishop that a "greater pandemic" -- racism -- means that it's suddenly OK to join thousands of other people in close proximity on the streets. The Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson Wilkin claimed in an interview on Sunday that "Most people have responsibly weighed up the risk that they would be taking in order to stand up,"

The global lockdown caused by the pandemic has devastated lives and caused huge economic worry. Faithful Christians are praying for the world, working hard to keep worship and preaching alive online, standing with friends and neighbours in the midst of suffering, witnessing to Christ; doctors and nurses are working round the clock to care for the sick and are desperate to avoid another spike. But according to this Bishop, now is the time to push for the overturn of the current social order by flouting the regulations so carefully observed up till now. You can't go into a church building in case you touch something and pass on the virus; you can't even have Holy Communion online, perhaps in case you upset someone with a mystical-professional view of the priesthood and sacraments, but you can join a crush of thousands as long as it is for a right-on cause.

This is the contradiction that doesn't compute for me. I understand the concept of the church simply following public opinion rather than giving a specifically Christian response, but when it tries to follow two opposing opinions at the same time: "avoid any physical meeting" and "join a crowd", is it just me or does this take incoherence to a new level?

As an epilogue:

As far as the protests are concerned, let me just say a few things about racism, politics and Christian faith. I acknowledge my own privileged background. I spent more than ten years of my life working with black people in the cause of upliftment in South Africa in the years immediately before and then following the end of the apartheid system. During that time I saw individual examples of racist attitudes, and genuine 'systemic' racism i.e. unjust and discriminatory laws, and I experienced being part of a nation expressing joy at the removal of those laws. I saw church leaders trying to justify racism, or turning a blind eye to it, saying this is a 'political' issue which has nothing to do with the gospel. I saw church and political leaders using the stirring up of racial grievance as a cover for their own financial corruption, power plays, and sexual immorality. I saw humble and deeply repentant local church leaders guiding their congregations towards reconciliation and interracial harmony, and national Christian leaders being prominent in Spirit-led programmes of transformation.

So racism and injustice exist, as do all the sins of the human heart until the final judgement. In the meantime, we pray and work for a solution not based on variations of secular humanism and revolutionary Marxism, but on forms of just, peaceful and democratic government underpinned by the vision of the gospel and the church given to us by Scripture. Gafcon with its genuinely multi cultural leadership and fellowship must continue to guide us here.

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