I was in a car crash a few weeks ago and, since I still have a broken neck and ankle, the crutches and the collar symbolise me. That is my excuse for having been so quiet for so long.
I presumed that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, having closed and locked all the churches, would be hellbent on inventing creative and imaginative ways to spread God’s message more loudly and clearly.
The pandemic should have been the wonderfully, rejuvenating clarion call we’ve all been waiting for. People were dying of something even the doctors had never seen before. We were all frightened by something no one could understand. We were facing a future that had become dark and unfathomable. We still are, but back then it was the old and the sick who were bearing the brunt. Now it’s the young; vulnerable and the least likely to have any remnants of Christianity to hang on to. That is where the church has had its biggest failure.
When I thought about what ideas the bishops might come up with I think I was imagining Salvation Army style bands and two metred space processions led by cheerfully robed clergy, snaking through the empty streets. And the rest of us could have used our permitted exercise times to join in when and where we could. God was certainly on the side of any outdoor activity; he sent warm, dry weather month after month.
Can you remember those early days in March? Some shops ran out of toilet rolls but supermarkets and corner shops reacted with amazing speed and efficiency to keep their doors open and their premises safe. We did not starve.
Instead, despite the fear and the fact it was Easter, the bishops slammed shut the doors of all the churches, denying us any spiritual sustenance.
However, all the bishops were fairly swift to rely on their clergy to throw themselves into zoom technology and in subtle ways have been trying to convince us that this is the new way forward. They point out that more people go to church online at the moment, and in any case the Church is the people not the building.
At last, on 25th September, 2020, Archbishop Justin Welby and Archbishop Stephen Cottrell have spoken out at a special session of the Church of England General Synod .
I wish the speeches had been rabble-rousers. Thunderous calls to arms that would have got even the most apathetic of congregations standing up to be counted. Sadly, Welby can usually be relied on to state the bleeding obvious.
The church, he said, “will be changed by the reality that for the first time all churches have been closed — the first time in 800 years. It will be changed because for the first time we have worshipped virtually.”
It’s actually the first time in 800 years we’ve had the technology that will allow us to worship virtually, but just because we can I’m not sure we must. By embracing virtual church so enthusiastically I think the bishops may be shooting themselves in the foot.
On the internet I am not limited to zooming into my local church. I can go anywhere — and I do.
Every morning I join the Dean of Canterbury, Robert Willis, somewhere in the Deanery garden, for a short service of psalms, readings, prayers and reflections. At the moment he is bringing alive scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, revealing a depth I hadn’t imagined. In six months I have learned more from him than I learnt in the last six years.
In any case, once on-line, why stay in the UK? There are some excellent blogs from Australia where they are having many of the same theological tussles we have. Reading about the church in Africa reassures me that Christianity will survive very well, no matter what the C of E decides. Most hopeful, for traditional Anglicans in the UK, are the news and views of the Anglican Church in North America — the ACNA. It is the sort of Anglican church that I pray will finally be resurrected here. Its leader, Archbishop Foley Beach, preaches the sort of sermons, full of straight forward theological truth, I haven’t heard in years in my local church.
On Saturday 26th, in an impassioned speech before thousands of men and women gathered in Washington, USA, for a Day of Repentance, Anglican Archbishop Foley Beach exhorted his hearers to repent, abandon lukewarmness and allow the fire of God’s Holy Spirit to revive them.
Unfortunately, Welby dismisses Foley Beach and the ANCA as a side show. Welby’s reaction is likely to have been “Good Heavens, what is he thinking of? He’ll be mentioning sin next.”
Archbishop Stepher Cotterell also shared the Presidential Address at Synod, but I don’t think he did any better. He lit no new sparks. In fact, I have to admit I thought it was a very odd speech, given we’re a religion of peace and love. He began by saying, “I hate this coronavirus,” and went on to list eight other things he hated. I won’t list them. They’re all the sort of things that we all hate about Covid19. It would have been better if he had told us, how, in Christ, we could set about coping with all these hates.
He’s grateful for the way we have been behaving during the crisis, which is nice to know, and then he shares with us, not his hope for the future, but his longing.
“And I am filled with longing: I long for us to be a more Christ centred and Jesus-shaped church witnessing to Christ and bringing the healing balm of the gospel to our nation for this is our vocation.”*
This all sounds too much like the lukewarmness that Archbishop Foley Beach warns against.