The point of church
‘Justin Welby’s edict went beyond what Downing Street sought in its social-distancing policies. Ministers had supposed churches might find safe ways to remain open. They were surprised the C of E was so eager to shut shop completely. It was as if bishops wanted to prove themselves obedient ink-monitors of the governing class’
When lockdown was starting, one of our church wardens, Charles, asked me, spring lamb that I am, to climb the tower’s tricky staircase and run the flag of St George up the mast. Charles lives down the valley and likes to see the church flag snapping in the distance. It reassures him that all is well in God’s kingdom. I did as requested but perhaps I hoisted the wrong flag. Given how the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, responded to coronavirus, it should possibly have been the white flag of surrender.
The New Testament reports that Jesus defied Leviticus 13 and went among the lepers. Any inquiry into Britain’s response to coronavirus will report that Archbishop Justin not only refused to go among the lepers but also scrapped all church weddings. Vicars were given firm orders—this was later, to comply with canon law, described as “guidance”—to lock churches, stop visiting the old and limit funerals to no more than five mourners. Could clergy not even murmur Evening Prayer in otherwise completely empty chapels? Certainly not.
Welby’s edict went beyond what Downing Street sought in its social-distancing policies. Ministers had supposed churches might find safe ways to remain open. They were surprised the C of E was so eager to shut shop completely. It was as if bishops wanted to prove themselves obedient ink-monitors of the governing class, or as they themselves put it “taking a lead in showing our communities how we must behave”. Note that plural, “communities”. It is a word loved of secular officialdom and frequently a euphemism for ethnic minorities. Was the Church trying to show mosques that obedience to civic codes trumps religious conviction? “Our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning,” continued Welby, “but by the service we offer to others.” Here was the Church as a service-provider rather than services-provider. Indeed, foodbanks “should continue where possible under strict guidelines”. Lambeth Palace added: “This is not just about us, it’s about our duty to encourage the simple message stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.” Whitehall soundbites, Amen.
What is the point of a small-c church? Well, it is a place where people can sing hymns and drink post-match sherry on Sundays. At inner-city churches tourists can take shelter, choirs can practise and lapsed middle-class types can comb their consciences by giving tramps roast turkey on Christmas Day. Country churches fulfil a different function. They act as a local identifier (in Herefordshire, where I live, that noun is usually singular) and can be a reminder of mortal continuity. Our church at How Caple has been around since at least the 14th century. Generations have come and gone like so many drifts of autumn leaves but Christianity has persevered. Pevsner notes the “haphazard vegetable and geometrical motifs” of its late-Norman font, and a “crazy” 17th-century screen which some ascribe to Grinling Gibbons. Churches are places where parishioners have been able, from before the days of the knife and fork, to assert an idea of civilisation. The worn flagstones and ancient memorials can lift us to an idea of the numinous. During a pandemic which has made so many people fearful, that could have been a comfort. What a lost opportunity.
Justin Welby perhaps hoped to avoid a repeat of what happened last time round. In January 1349 the bishop of Bath and Wells, Ralph of Shrewsbury, bewailed “the contagious pestilence” of the bubonic plague. Priests preferred to stay home, as today’s Downing Street would put it, rather than visit the sick. So many souls were dying without the Sacrament of Penance that Ralph ruled it was no longer necessary for death-bed confessions to be heard by ordained figures. If people were “on the point of death and can not secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other, whether to a layman or, if no man is present, then even to a woman”. Ralph of Shrewsbury was prepared to think the unthinkable. Justin of Canterbury has been less elastic. Was it really impossible to arrange things so that passers-by, on their permitted hour of daily exercise, could enter our empty church, sit for a few moments, light a votive candle and drink deeply of the building’s old soul? Social distancing is seldom a problem in rural churches. How Caple’s pews can seat 80 but the average congregation is about 20.
Many vicars—though not all, for some are furious with Welby—have responded to the lockdown with a hearty evangelism worthy of the final scene in The Life of Brian. They have followed the example of their archbishop who broadcast an Easter service from his kitchen, electric toaster in the background. Worship, they chirrup, is about more than buildings. “We’ll just have to get used to doing Church differently!” said one pingy curate I know. He is prone to exclamation marks. Home-streamed services, accompanied by plinkety-plonky Graham Kendrick songs off a website, may be fine for zealful believers. But those of us who struggle to believe, who are less literal when we say the Creed, find that sort of thing excruciating. For us there is greater spirituality to be found alone in a wise old church, its musty, echoing silence trumpeting our temporal limitations.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.