Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Church Buildings, Streaming and Lockdown

For about the last 40 years as a youth leader, ordinand and clergyperson, I've been constantly preaching the message that the church is not a building, but people. It's a jumping record (if you do vinyl) or a loop (if you're digital) that I intend to maintain whilst I am still capable of coherent speech. In fact, no-one ever really contradicts me, but in the way churches behave and prioritise their activity and energy, you might come to a different conclusion.

This has all come up again, because clergy have been instructed not to go into their buildings regularly - whether to pray or worship along, or to stream services online. In reaction, some go into their churches anyway, some have gone to significant lengths to make a room in their vicarage look ecclesiastical for streaming, some just keep their heads down, others of us have accepted that something more simple might have to suffice.

This has prompted a number of discussions on Facebook and Twitter, and some significant heat has been generated:
  • about the importance of buildings as holy places
  • about a sense that prayers / communion in a kitchen/living room/study are somehow less legitimate than those "in church".
  • about streamed worship and what sort of church it creates / shapes
  • about the authority of the archbishops to prohibit clergy from using the church buildings entrusted to them.

Let's take church buildings first. It is clearly the case that specific, dedicated buildings are not essential for the church to be authentically the church. To say otherwise would be dismiss the life of the church in the early centuries of its existence, along with persecuted churches through the centuries, not to mention the many congregations (including in the C of E) which gather in school halls or community buildings week by week. There are many more pressing theological, ecclesiastical and social questions that are a much greater threat to the church's legitimacy than the buildings being utilised.

That's not to say that buildings are irrelevant or trivial, but they are not an end in themselves, and they are not fundamental to the church's being. At a practical level, a church building is useful - it's a venue, it's a known location, and usually provides an instantly recognisable location and focal point for identifying the church's presence. And that has a profound symbolism - church buildings are often viewed with affection by the local community because of its associations with sad and happy memories in the lives of their families and friends. Go to any churchyard on a fine day, and you'll probably see others placing flowers, looking for their ancestors or just remembering. This can have a profound meaning - especially in communities where generations of the same family have lived.

At an aesthetic level, Church buildings can be beautiful symbols and pointers to the beliefs of the community that use them, and to the God who is worshipped within them. Some of the greatest art, sculpture, architecture and stained glass have been created to that end. The 800th anniversary of laying the foundations of Salisbury Cathedral has just happened, and that's an example of a structure that for many points not only to the sky, but also to God himself.

The trickier bit is when people start to talk about sacred space, so-called 'thin places', or stones that have been prayed in for a thousand years. Anyone who has been to an ancient Christian place of pilgrimage or spirituality will appreciate this. I have had that sense visiting Lindisfarne and Iona, for example, but even in these cases we need to be careful. Are we saying that somehow God is more present in these locations, or that the barriers are thinner or lesser?  Are we finding that these locations are especially good at helping us discern the God who, in fact, is just as present everywhere else? To put it more technically, is there something ontological about a 'holy place'?

My own view is that there is nothing ontological about holy places, but the significance of the events that created those locations in the first place, and the long history of pilgrimage, worship and devotion around them creates its own dynamic of expectation and receptivity. People certainly seem to have experiences of God in a closer and more immediate way in these places, but that doesn't mean that they are intrinsically different to anywhere else. Don't get me wrong, I don't see the experience of sacred space as insignificant, but it shouldn't create a spiritual hierarchy in our heads that effectively says God doesn't turn up in certain places, or at least he turns up in a superior way in some places, rather than others.

Coming back to today's debate, it is undeniable that many church buildings are very helpful in preparing people to pray, in providing visual symbols, pointers and signs for worship, and being places of encounter. Having said that, in my 8 years as a stewardship adviser, I met a number of vicars, church wardens and treasurers of village churches, who would have been glad to be rid of a listed building with a 6-figure repair bill so that they could meet instead in the village hall.

I have also been reflecting on whether the passions circulating about buildings also have something to say about our own faith development. It's probably fair to say that the most significant moments in my own faith and in discovering my vocation happened on CYFA ventures in hired school premises, or in youth group meetings in church halls. Over the years, I have been aware that I don't associate church buildings with important formative moments or key periods in the development of my own faith. As a result I have had to listen carefully and learn about people's love for, attachment to, and sensitivities about church buildings in order to understand and engage with their spiritual life, but it doesn't come naturally to me.

More positively, I see the current restrictions as an opportunity to rediscover God in everyday life, in people, and in unlikely places - even my study. After all, although Jesus did spend time in the Temple, he invested an awful lot of it in other people's dining rooms, and the eucharist was not instituted in a church or temple, but a room borrowed for a group meal. Perhaps there's something new for all of us in that.


I saw a Twitter conversation about the term 'virtual worship'. I think one of the official C of E channels had used the term, and some people felt it suggested a contrast between online and 'real' worship. Obviously there is a difference in the means of delivery of worship, but how has that changed our experience and engagement with worship.

As a minister, my experience is primarily in putting together and sharing online worship. The thing I am missing is probably best summed up with the word rapport. There is the absence of the more formal liturgical response - no "and also with you" or "amen" can be heard in from of my computer. I miss the nods and smiles when I welcome people to services; I miss the occasional chuckle or even comment back during sermons; I miss the handshakes of the Peace, I miss placing holy communion in people's hands, and sharing in singing together the songs of worship. Facebook Live, YouTube and Zoom can compensate for some of that, but it's not the same. If you're not religious, compare having a coffee, a meal or a drink with your mates on Zoom versus sitting with them in the cafe, bar or restaurant.

Of course, in church we're also asking questions like "is it real worship"? I think it is "real" whenever people sincerely engage with it wherever they are, but whether it could ever be normative is a different question. As it's all very new and feels a strange and temporary way of being, our little YouTube sessions feel like a stop-gap measure. Involving others in online worship is more complicated, and requires a certain amount of technical ability and resources. I have been keen not to end up doing "the Mike Peatman show" on a Sunday, but avoiding that has resulted in me having to spend more time with iMovie. Furthermore, we have to remember that significant numbers of churchgoers are either not online at all, or don't feel confident enough with technology. We are currently sending out prayers and sermons on paper to 14 people, which is about 1/3 of our regular congregation.

I haven't gone down the line of streaming communion services where I am doing it on my own. There is a theological justification for doing a 'solo' communion - joining in the worship of heaven and the worldwide church, and for my more catholic colleagues it is an offering for the church and the world whether present or not. For me any celebration of communion is a corporate activity - I don't celebrate the eucharist, we celebrate it and the priest presides at the celebration. With no people physically present in the room, that sense is diminished, as well the fact that no one else can contribute in sharing the liturgy, readings, prayers or anything else involved without a level of multi-camera tech I don't possess. Just as with the other streamed acts of worship, I have a discomfort with worship where the human focus is on one person.


This is going on a bit, so I'll be quicker here. The debate around restrictions sometimes explicitly, and sometimes more subtly raised the questions of authority. The law says that a minister of religion may leave their house to go to a place of worship. It doesn't say just for special occasions, checking the building or for emergencies. Legally clergy can go to their churches to pray on their own, and I presume they could stream a video of it as well, provided they were alone. [Of course the safety of lone working then becomes a question!]

However, the Archbishops have issued two statements here and here making it clear that clergy should not use their buildings. Challenged on Andrew Marr, Justin Welby said that it was guidance, not instruction, although the first letter says that churches "must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer ".

This was bound to activate all the clergy who don't like getting any guidance/instructions from their bishops, even thought they are often the ones who complain about the lack of leadership. However,  there are real problems here. I'm not a church lawyer, but I doubt that Archbishops can easily override the legal right of clergy to prayer in their churches - and what the Archbishop said on the Marr show would support that.

With this perceived uncertainty, there are now letters getting signed about letting clergy back into their churches. Given that it's probably riskier going to Morrison's than to an empty church, personally I don't see why they shouldn't if they really want to; it's already legal.

Rounding Off

There's also a pressure to allow funerals in church again. That's harder, as once church is open for something 'public', it sets a precedent, and also places churches in the role of policing what appropriate social distancing means and potentially having to turn people away at the door.

What has become clear is that covid-19 has shaken up our entire way of life, and the church has not been immune. Along with all other aspects of life, we have had to learn new things, and have perhaps been reminded of the importance of community and relationship in a fresh way. We need to turn our energy away from claiming our rights within the life of the church, and concentrate instead on what it means to be the church for the wider world in this time of crisis.

This time will pass, and many of our previous ways will return, and others won't and shouldn't. In the meantime we need to pray for the wisdom to know the difference between the two.


Sue Kiernan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue Kiernan said...


Sue Kiernan said...

Really enjoyed reading this Mike. Thank you for a well-thought through, carefully articulated and stimulating encouragement to further