Three rules for Love, in a time of Pandemic

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

So, your church is locked? What do you do?

This is a very very initial thought. It will no doubt please some and not others. As with my previous blog, it’s written by a parish priest of some twenty years who initially studied Biology at University. And I’m a liturgist – which should kill it all, at least for some of you.

First, two very generalized observations.

This is written just a fortnight or so after public worship was suspended, a week after the Archbishops’ letter advising that all churches should be closed. In both the timescale of COVID-19 and the speed with which governments and countries have moved, this is still ‘new’ and will quickly change (possibly before I even finish typing this entry).

Secondly, there is, understandably, confusion. Have the Archbishops gone beyond what the Government, the law (and regulations to date) are saying? Should they? Can each Diocesan Bishop vary that advice? Can clergy ignore that advice? And that’s before we get to the myriad different permutations which clergy and others have flagged up (from ‘there is a connecting door from my study into the church, can I really not open the door?’ through to ‘why should I not drive five miles each way from my home to (one of) my churches to say morning and evening prayer and have a mass whilst I’m at it, after all, I’m the Vicar and the building is mine!!’

Alas, and to try to be fair, no Bishop alive can produce advice (or even canonical instructions) with which everyone will agree. For one of the unwritten rules of ‘Anglicanism’ is to cry for episcopal leadership when it’s perceived to be lacking, and then dissect, deride and dispose of it the moment it arrives.

Equally, Bishops know this. Clergy have a great deal of latitude – and even today, don’t take kindly to managerialism. We are at the ‘sharp end’ and are the ones who end up having to implement the latest ad clerum. Most of us though prefer to have someone else to take the flak, even when there is little flak to be taken. But we recognise we are not the arbiters of everything – there are rules  – whether we like them or not (and whether we can find a way around them or not).

This pandemic has created its own cascading epidemic of unresolved issues. Things which were hidden, have come to light, to use a phrase. The desire to resolve everything neatly is a displacement activity which is part of our collective grief. The ‘mood music’ of ‘I don’t believe it’; anger (at God, people, police, bishops government etc); genuine sorrow, grief, acceptance –  is a pattern we should already recognize when the familiar has suddenly become unfamiliar.

We’re capable of making both good and bad decisions when we are in states of grief. We’d normally put off decisions until a calmer time is reached. The present situation when we’re caught in the eye of the storm means such decisions have to be made. Whether they are right, wrong or somewhere in the middle is perhaps a question only the more foolish of us would seek to determine now. That the ground is moving under us is itself a source of confusion and frustration.

So, perhaps threes golden rules first.

  1. It’s not a competition.
  2. I may have an opinion, but that doesn’t mean I’m right
  3. I inherit and inhabit a tradition that not everyone shares.


Sacraments, Sacramentality and Sacred Spaces

There will be an undoubted genuine dispute about what is the right thing to do. See rules 2 and 3 above. We live in a Church where theological difference and tension waxes and wanes. So it may be that your study now resembles the interior of the Gesu in Rome, a makeshift television studio, has a quiet ‘prayer corner’ is the local epicentre of ‘zoom based toddler praise’ or none or all of these things. Each are genuine attempts to respond to the present situation – one hopefully mediated by our care both of self and of others. Whatever you have or haven’t done – remember RULE 1. We need to resist a pandemic of guilt.

For many clergy (I’m a priest, so forgive any sense of ‘clergy-centrism’) this begins in recognising a sense of helplessness. Our sense of ‘being’ is merged with ‘doing’. I hope that a good thing which might come out of this is re-balancing these ‘pulls’. For some, slowing down from social engagement and a ‘retreat’ into prayer will feel a dramatic change – as it will be for those for whom a ministry focussed in prayer will feel dramatically pulled into more social engagement – albeit distanced. We are all different and our responses will be driven in part by our own needs as well as by trying to respond to the needs of others. See RULE 2. So what you do and I do may not be right for each other – something we need to attend to – but that therefore doesn’t mean either of us is wrong, we may just be different.

Whilst RULE 3 should axiomatically apply, there is a commonality for all clergy – and one would hope all Christians – that prayer, and prayer concretized in worship is a vital given necessity. The tension now is how this is exercised between personal and communal. For incumbents (those ‘in charge’ of parishes) this is a particular tension. The present pandemic has inverted these – what once was personal now becomes public and communal – and what was public and communal has become much more personal.

Places, buildings, churches are hugely important to us. They are repositories of memory and history as well as places of function. Our buildings are steeped in this. We know this because we live with them – and live with the tensions they also create. I’m writing at a point where we’re about to appoint a new inspecting architect – letters will go out (via email) this week. For the last two weeks, I have repetitiously spoken about a large major parish church and its purpose, its strengths and its opportunities. And I have spoken about its weaknesses, deficiencies and challenges I am in part bereft of not being in it and relieved at not having to face it, even if I’m still having to worry about how to pay for it.

Now, praying and saying mass in my dining room, feels both right and wrong all at the same time. It feels wrong because I’m not in the ‘right’ space with the ‘right’ people doing what we do. It feels right though because I’m in the space I can be in, with people – albeit online (and responding to their need – as countless emails and texts show) doing what we do even if that is very different to ‘normal’. Our context means that the vast majority can access online services – and there is a strong pastoral plan to ensure the congregation is engaged by Livestream – as well as – email or phone-calls or (where safe) post alongside wider collaborative work in the community to respond to local need. Not everyone is in that position.

I’m trying (and probably failing) not to ‘virtue signal’ in saying this – although at this time, what might seem even the must apparently superficial acts may well have real virtue which is worth signalling. Again RULE 1 is vital. What I can do with others here, is not necessarily what you can do with others there. Understanding our context is important, different and challenging.

Our buildings are important – but they’re not often as essential as we might first think. They have a form, but one which is importantly subservient to function.  For want of a maxim, the church (as building) is not the plene ben esse of the Church. The people of God are forced now into a diaspora existence, rather than functioning in gathered mode.

For me at least, Mass is mass, wherever it is offered. Its validity is not caused by place. Mass in the nursing home, school, at someone’s bedside, in a conference centre, on a racecourse, or in a field in a country village does not affect its validity.  I am recalled to a particular piece of purple prose from Dom Gregory Dix’s majestic Shape of the Liturgy:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

We value place as much for convenience as for anything else. Our buildings are shelters, yes. They are places of memory, yes. They are delineated spaces, of course. But, they do not define us (or should not define us). They are places of liturgical assembly yes, but not the only place where liturgical assembly. If your parish church burnt down tomorrow, would everything stop, would the Church cease to exist? They exist at a fundamental because they are simply places for an altar and a ‘home’ for the people of God. But if needs be, homes and altars can and do move.

Dix’s prose also highlights another of the fundamental tensions, one which subsists both in our concept of our Parish Churches as well as in our self-identity as priests – one played out in normal circumstances in a myriad of tweets and Facebook pieces. What is the role of the priest, sacramentally? Are we offerers of Holy Sacrifice, vicarial mediators, ecclesial liturgical administrators, or simply ‘meal hosts’ for those who come to make of sacraments what they will? Perhaps our struggle lies in the answer, in part, all of these. Where we put the emphasis is where the fun begins.

As someone very much at the Catholic end of the Church of England (and remembering RULE 3) – that tradition very much identifies the priest as one offering the sacrifice of the mass pro populo, on behalf of and for the people. To use Michael Ramsay’s dictum we bear at the altar the people to God and God to the people. I tread carefully here because this is part of what we do. To feed the people of God sacramentally is important – and shouldn’t be at all underestimated. But Western Christianity holds that the ‘obligation’ is to ‘hear mass being said’ as opposed to receiving Holy Communion being the ‘be all and end all’ of what we do. Indeed, reception of Communion isn’t obligatory – and may at times be discouraged in specific circumstances. Indeed at times, it may be all but impossible. What, in this tradition though, the priest has a special responsibility to do, is to make that offering. The practice of ‘spiritual communion’ had been largely lost – a vaguely obsolete practice – but out of the store cupboard come things new and old in a time of crisis – and this is a practice now seemingly officially sanctioned as a public good.

To those of other traditions, that might sound outrageous, or even theologically abhorrent. But, remember RULE 3. We each, from our own tradition, approach this differently – and so our responses at the present time will be different. Some will see this as an opportune time for a ‘Eucharistic fast’, others will tend towards a mass ‘on the hour every hour’. Opinions (remember RULE 2) will, as always be coloured by this background – and undoubtedly there is some implicit or explicit defence of one’s own theological position over and above others going on.

The subject of livestreaming then also bites. To do so or not to? Again, I don’t think there is a ‘right or wrong’ answer – nor should there be any pressure to do it (remember RULE 1). We’re not performing monkeys and probably need to avoid the temptation to re-imagine any online liturgy as needing to be in the style of The One Show. Equally, we’re not TV professionals – thank God. So if we’ve not quite got the camera angle right, or the lighting is a bit off, or the sound goes wonky, or we’re in half shadow – we’re not doing Songs of Praise and there’s no edit suite – we’re doing out best. Tips are welcome, but that school of helpfulness which is in reality, the ‘critics column’ might not be received as warmly…

My personal preference – for what it’s worth –  (RULE 2 applies here) is live streaming is ‘live’ – recorded material is different. I’m not wholly sure about a recorded mass filmed on a Friday quite being right for a Sunday for example. That does feel more like the mediated TV experience (for anyone who’s hosted Songs of Praise, you’ll know that feeling of doing an “Easter” recording in Lent – when floral displays and lighting are imported, and it all just feels a bit disjointed)… but again, that’s my own opinion and might well not be right – I need more time to think that through.

Where is do feel on more solid ground is in saying this is unusual and exceptional. It is not normal – and so it shouldn’t be, nor in the longer term, become so. Sacraments mediated through internet channels may convey something sacramental but they are less than the fullness of the Liturgical Celebration of the Sacrament as we have received it (at least for those on the end of any ‘broadcast’).

For the priest, celebrating alone is exceptional. How that should be done in a live stream celebration isn’t something conceived of by any of the published guides or rules by any competent body. Yes, the Roman General Instruction does guide what should happen if you are absolutely physically on your own. But no-one has envisaged what might be required for ‘telecast’ ‘solo’ masses – because we’ve not had to face this situation in the modern age in a ‘connected’ western society.

And yet, in all of this, live streamed or not – on your own or in a small family group – must be the remembrance what we are never truly alone. What is difficult and different is the ‘near absence’ of the Church Militant – but the Church expectant and Church Triumphant is still present. If Henri de Lubac is right, that The Eucharist makes the Church, then the Church still is made in our offering of the Eucharist, albeit in unquestionably exceptional times. Our God is not absent from what we do – wherever we might be doing it. Different, yes. Uncomfortable, probably. Hesitant, certainly.

Whatever you do or don’t do has to be right for you and for your parish. It will depend on the resources available. It must be rooted in prayer. To quote the Bishop of Leeds, “it is not a media competition,” and we need to resist the urge to make it so. Nor should we fall into the trap of ‘successfulism’ the modern ecclesial doctrine that just as we’re already prone to feel success or failure dependent on “numbers”, we may be tempted to view that according to our Facebook stats. After all, everyone’s Statistics for Mission numbers for Easter are probably going to show a massive increase.

This isn’t the final word – it is simply itself a reflection on where we are today. Much of this may well be re-written, re-thought and re-imagined. A lot of it might just be plain wrong. Hindsight is now not just a cliché but a land we need to acknowledge. Where we are next week or next month will, of necessity, be informed by that journey we now undertake. Here, for a while, we must re-pitch our tent, stop, reflect and pray. Whether we’ve picked a good spot or not, or how and where our journey will take us, is yet to be revealed. All we do now is the best we can: to pray, to be faithful and to hope.






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