I have been mulling the decision to close churches. Though it maybe the right decision in the present circumstances it still doesn’t sit right with me.
I am not knocking the episcopacy. The decision to close is a heavy cross for them to bear and I know it goes against their instincts as much as my own. It was taken in love and in the interest of protecting the vulnerable not least the many elderly clergy in this country. In terms of ‘health advice’ the decision is easily defended.
But we must also ask at what cost to the faith? I fear it might be a heavy one if people ask ‘where was the church in time of crisis’ and the answer is ‘at home and in isolation.’ This is not where the early church were found when the went to the sick and offered dignified burial to the departed. It is not where the 19th Century clergy were who bravely ministered amidst cholera and typhoid. What would they make of the decision to comply with government directive and shut doors? That is not an easy question to answer given that we have a better medical knowledge than them regarding the risk of infecting others. Like all questions thrown up by this virus- the answers are complex not easy.
Regardless the situation at present is this: Churches are closed yet abortion mills, off licenses and supermarkets are open. The posties, builders and bin collectors work but clergy sit at home. This is uncomfortable because it teases out an alarming fact. Christian worship is clearly being treated as a form of personal entertainment by government and our bishops have accepted that decision. We have been placed in the category of non-essential services- with cinemas, restaurants and pubs – not into the category of essential services with pharmacies, grocers and off-licenses.
What does this say about our NEED for the sacraments? This question must be addressed by the bishops as a matter of urgency because for as long as off-licences are open and churches are closed the only possible conclusion for people to make is that our need for Mass is less than our need for a bottle of claret. And any Christian worth their salt knows this isn’t so. If people can socially space in stores can they not socially space in churches?
This is not a flippant question given that I minister in a parish less than a mile from hospital. A number of my congregation work in that hospital and I am in communication to assure them of my prayers, especially those working on the Covid 19 wards. They are rightly apprehensive being not only medics but husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. Pray for them. Not least as they are deprived of Mass at the exact moment they need it most. I feel rotten and impotent seeing them risk everything to care for the sick whilst not allowed to risk much less myself to minister, in return, to them.
The response of those who endorse church closure will be obvious and wise. We deprive people only temporarily to minimise risk and lower the curve for the health service. And in the coming weeks, as bodies undoubtedly stack up, that decision will seem wiser than ever. And we also must remember the hospital chaplains who are, very much, about the work needed at this time. So I am not encouraging dissent here only, I guess, mourning a loss of congregation and lamenting an inability to be there for people at this time. It hurts.
In obedience and loss then we Christians must hold onto the fact this lock down is but temporary. Church doors will open again. So temporary we can do. Let us use the pause to deepen our commitment. May the absence of what we love make our hearts grow stronger. But we cannot keep this up for very long…
If the lock down is not temporary surely we must think again? Perhaps commissioning ‘virus priests’ to tend the sick and workers? Because church is NOT a non essential luxury for people of living faith. It is essential and we cannot live without the grace communal worship brings. Let me be clear; I would rather contract virus and die in a nation whose churches are open than remain for long in a nation where worship is banned.
A vigil is upon us who value daily Mass. We wait in prayer and obedience. But we cannot wait for very long because man does not live by bread alone.
NB: the photo is from the archives, taken when Fr. Leviseur found the church of Quo Vadis in Rome shut some years ago…he wasn’t impressed!