'In the time of any common Plague or Sickness'
Dr John Mueller looks at how Christian communities in Britain are dealing with the suspension of public worship.
On 17 March 2020 all public worship in the Church of England was suspended for the foreseeable future. The Roman Catholic Church followed on 27th. For the first time since 1208 Christians are not able to attend any services. Clergy and congregation are faced with an unprecedented situation. We do not know how long this will last and how it may affect the Church.
In this state of anxiety priests are struggling to offer the consolation they are trained to give and wish to share. In times of crisis some have a 'stronger sense of spiritual fatherhood' (Fr Rupert Allen, Chaplain, Bristol University, RC), but are forbidden from fulfilling their roles. 'Many people, who have never attended a service, have asked to join me in prayer for the first time' (Fr Sebastian Hamilton, Assistant Curate, Tewkesbury Abbey, CoE), but of course they are not permitted.
'It was surreal posting a notice on the church door, pointing people towards an online webcam, then going inside to chant the psalms and offer the Eucharist for all the people of our central London parish, but not with them. Saints and angels stood around I'm sure. Mixed emotions.' (Fr Jack Noble, Assistant Curate, St Marylebone Church, CoE)
Countless parishes have gone 'online', as a work-around, offering regular services and prayers. Some things can still be participated in remotely, but others cannot. For faithful Christians certain acts of communal worship are absolutely essential to salvation. Depending on denomination the attendance is obligatory: some need to attend offices, such as daily morning and evening prayer, while others may have to receive Holy Communion (Eucharist/Mass) daily, weekly or on holy days of obligation. While prayer can happen in private and mostly be conducted by a lay person, the sacraments of Holy Communion, Baptism, Marriage and, depending on denomination, others too, can only be offered by a priest in the Anglican and Roman churches. Roman Catholic priests may say mass on their own, but in the Church of England this is officially not allowed, which means parish priests (Rectors, Vicars etc) need at least one other person to be physically present and participate.
Even when certain aspects of worship can move online, not all people have access to the internet and the necessary equipment and these are often the most vulnerable, lonely and fragile people in a congregation: 'Some of the most vulnerable people cannot benefit from modern technology, so we are sending out prayer books, and keeping in touch by telephone.' (The Rev'd Dr Geoffrey Dumbreck, Vicar, South Croydon, CoE)
But worship is not just the enactment of rites or the recitation of prayers, but an important aspect of social life and the performance of charitable acts are a religious obligation. For many people seeing friends and acquaintances during services or the meeting of a church group is their only regular human interaction. In the urban context the homeless often only come in contact with those with a fixed abode during public worship. Churches in the UK feed 100,000 people annually, provide half the toddler and parent groups and offer the largest network of debt counsellors. All this will fall away.
To prevent worshippers becoming 'consumers' churches have come up with various schemes: Mother's Day, originally an Anglican festival, was marked by placing a lit candle in the window at 7pm. Many churches left flowers at their gates for people to collect. In Cambridge, St Giles' Church rings the Angelus Bell at 12:01 and 18:01 daily inviting those of all faiths to pause, reflect and give thanks, offering some sense of connection across the city.
While private prayers and online services continue, the sacraments – those essential Christian acts of faith – can only be performed in communion and face to face. Emergency baptism is permitted by a layman in the Church of England, but the giving of the last rights or the receiving of Holy Communion during important festivals such as Good Friday or Easter Sunday is now prohibited by the Church itself and by the government. Many Roman Catholic Priests in Italy have continued their work and suffered the consequences. Nothing short of martyrdom seems to allow 'normal' Christian life to continue and it will be a challenge to face this in the times ahead.
Dr John Mueller is Alumni & Supporter Relations Manager at the Woolf Institute. He is also the Director of Studies in History at St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge, and a practicing Anglican involved as Chair of Trustees in his own parish church. The author uses 'the Church' to indicate communality between the Anglican and Roman churches.
Addendum: Since this was published the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have closed all churches. Permission has been granted for Anglicans to celebrate the Eucharist on their own, on the condition there is a virtual congregation. The Roman Catholic church continues to celebrate masses in churches, streaming them, but without a congregation.
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