This weekend the churches in UK will remain closed. The tradition of congregating for an Easter Sunday Service will not happen.
Now I have no particular axe to grind, but something so earth-shattering that it hasn’t happened since the twelfth Century shouldn’t pass unnoticed.
The reason, of course, is COVID-19, and it makes perfect sense. Congregations tend to draw their numbers from the age group still reckoned to be most vulnerable to serious attack from this virus, those for whom social distancing is particularly important.
Closure of buildings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York assure us, does not diminish the significance of the Easter weekend. The church is inside those who believe, the worshippers, rather than the shelter within which they worship. Communications have rather improved since the 12th Century, and the church is able to come to its congregation on-line.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will lead the Easter Morning Service from his London home. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four, and available live from the Church of England’s website:
This is more portentous than a mere historical milestone. It is a chance for the church to measure the response of its parishioners, because I am prepared to bet the Archbishop’s audience will far exceed the average 1500 who attend his cathedral. Why? Well, not because an act of prayer from one’s own home takes less ‘effort’, but because it is more accessible to those conscience would be pricked by the pollution of a journey and the fear of infection.
If any good is to come out of this benighted little bug that besets us, it is in the chances it offers to re-think many outdated concepts. Up and down the land more businesses are learning new ways of working that do not involve the daily trek to an office; more retail groups and sole traders are using the enforced leisure to improve their presence online, more fatted calves of the communications industry are reassessing their schedules, and we ourselves are discovering a renewed blueness to the sky. The air is fresher, sunrises can once again be seen from the cities. The whole world is taking a very deep breath.
And no, the church does not escape. As its ancient buildings get older, they become increasingly frail, while the cost of their maintenance escalates. Their congregations dwindle. Yes, group worship in a full church is an uplifting experience, but the sad truth is cold stone and empty echoes in chambers where the dead outnumber the living. As the priesthood gets older, fewer young people seem eager to study theology. You can’t get the staff nowadays!
So why not take the message of Coronavirus to heart? Why not redirect the vast resources devoted to renovating old gargoyles or replacing lead on roofs to helping the poor and the disadvantaged? Keep the few great cathedrals, yes, but why not subsidize housing on the rest of the church’s estates to provide homes for those just starting out in life, or those with special needs?
Every act which benefits the lives of others is a prayer. Isn’t that the true measure of belief? Isn’t that what a church should be for?