I live in a small village on Exmoor, Somerset, with a very fine thirteenth century church at its heart. In the churchyard is a magnificent yew tree which dates back to the fourteenth century and is said to have been planted at the time of the Black Death, a plague which ravaged the known world and killed almost a third of the population of Europe alone. The baby seedlings of the yew tree will have witnessed victims of the plague being buried and villagers going to church to pray for comfort and deliverance from pestilence.
Nearly 800 years later, another pestilence, the Coronavirus, is ravaging the world. But the yew tree, which is now a patriarch presiding over the churchyard, is not witnessing the villagers going to church to pray for comfort and deliverance because, by order of the government, all churches in the land are locked preventing public worship and private prayer. The government is acting with the best of intentions – how could they not take sweeping actions in the face of this cruel invader – and the archbishops and bishops, who have endorsed and tightened the Government’s actions, are doing the same.
But by not being able to pray in their churches, people are being cut off from sources of spiritual sustenance, healing and well-being which are needed more than ever. Forbidding public worship in churches at this time is understandable, but stopping private prayer in churches is akin to preventing people from going to their local surgery. The frequently-heard call that Christians need to be the Church in a different way at this time may speak to regular church-goers, but certainly not to everybody who looks to the Church for support at this time.
There is a large, often overlooked, group of people whom the Church of England has famously embraced in the past. They do not attend regularly but they have a belief: they do not feel at home with the Body of Christ in its usual worship and traditional articulation of faith. They often support the Church and are well-disposed towards it. They find the church building a place of comfort and peace and can be found praying there during the week. Simply being in a church connects them to struggles and victories of the past. For many of them, churches, even empty churches, are places of memory, community and hope. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple stated that the Church was primarily for these people when he said, ‘The Church is the only organisation that exists for the sake of those who are not its members.’ Like Philip Larkin, the Church is, for them, ‘A serious house on serious earth….In whose blent air all our compulsions meet.’ It is a place of inner reconciliation and healing.
Throughout my ministry I have met many wonderful people like this who are supporters of the church and bring insights into God which are vital to the life of the Church. But when they turn to their church in the present crisis, quietly seeking spiritual sustenance and inner reconciliation which will help maintain their well-being and inner health, the doors are locked.
Over recent decades, institutions have openly recognised that human beings have spiritual as well as physical and mental needs. The constitutions of schools and hospitals recognise that a person’s spirituality needs to be respected and fed. The Royal College of Psychiatrists hosts a lively special interest group on spirituality recognising its value to mental health. Spiritual needs are understood in a variety of ways – for people of faith they are often described using religious language, others may describe them using nature, feelings or experience.
At times of fear, deep concern and hysteria such as we are facing now, it is natural to dig deep to understand and live with the trauma that such events thrust at us. This results in a conversation between the spiritual and intellectual parts of our being. The fear of the unknown and uncertainty, the fear of death, the fear of dying alone and the fear of being buried or cremated without being surrounded by our loved ones strike terror deep within us. While provision is made for our medical needs and mental well-being, time and space also need to be made to grapple with these primal, often unarticulated, fears. In the past, churches have provided the space for this to happen, in particular through their availability for private prayer. As of 26th March, the government has, quite rightly, given permission for churches to be used for essential voluntary services such as food banks, it has even given permission to broadcast an act of worship (though Church of England archbishops and bishops have forbidden this) but there is no permission for private prayer.
When this crisis passes, I hope that there will be parties, celebrations and services of thanksgiving. Church bells should be rung, the church doors flung open and a special effort made to welcome back all in the community, especially those who have felt locked out.
Image 2 by Gerd Altman from Pixabay
My book Unofficial God? Voices from Beyond the Walls, published by SPCK in 2004 encourages the need for an open and lively relationship between Church and world if the church is to flourish. For more information click here.