Alexander Rayner on the ways city churches are cooperating in mission and ministry
If we are honest, none of us knew what to do at first. With hindsight some of the choices we made were sensible, others less so; some made too rashly, some too slowly. The Coronavirus challenged us all and our reactions, both the successes and failures, give us much to learn.
But first, some context. The current situation is not normal. It will never be normal. Faith can offer us hope as well as a certain resoluteness: “we will meet again” as HM the Queen put it so well in April. We should also remember that our predicament is not so great compared to the travails of many Christians past and present who have lived out their faith in secret, fearing for their lives. Our Lord said: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If not the gates of hell then, I am sure, not Covid-19 either.
By “church” we may mean several things: a building, a particular parish community, and a wider corporal (and corporate) body that is both an organization and the mystical body of Christ that encompasses the Church militant (us, the community here on earth), expectant (the dead) and triumphant (i.e. the saints, with whom we pray). The pandemic has changed and challenged our experience of and interaction with the Church on many of these levels.
Firstly, the building. For me, the “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” that is St Magnus the Martyr. For many of us in the City Catholics, the place itself really matters. We worship with all our senses and no video can quite capture the full experience. Zoom may offer an excellent platform for dialing into work meetings while still in one’s pyjamas, but, by filtering our worship through only sight and sound, it inevitably impoverishes it. I, for one, found the experience of the viewer or listener is changed too: participation becomes optional, less complete and more a download than an interaction. It becomes too tempting to tune out and feels more like staring at Mass through the church window but never coming inside.
Secondly, the parish community: the nods and smiles going in and out, the laughter, the support and warmth this provides. During lockdown this was removed. We did of course adapt and try to speak to each other in different ways. However, as with the sensory experience of church, this can never perfectly replicate the experience of “being there”. One of the positives of church (although it may not always feel like that) is interacting with a group of people one would not otherwise meet. This community, and what happens before and after any particular service, is an extension of the liturgy itself and a source of strength and support to us all, but especially those who live alone or are struggling with their mental health.
Thirdly, the extended community or body of Christ through which we access the sacraments. In this respect, the lack of direct contact is most challenging to the Catholic. The sacraments materialize the mystical, making God’s grace accessible to our senses. While we can listen and see remotely, we cannot smell, taste and, most importantly, touch and be touched by the sacraments. Real presence requires presence. A video stream, like a painting or musical performance, can be beautiful, inspiring and moving, but ultimately fails to transmit the sacrament to us. As a result we are deprived of full participation in the body of Christ and communion with the church in its widest sense, militant, expectant and triumphant.
It has taken all of us time to adapt to these challenges. Nothing can replace physical presence, and virtual liturgy must never be “normal” liturgy. However, we should look at our reaction to the challenge, give thanks for how we have risen to it draw some lessons for the future.
We have, with varying levels of success, learned to adopt new technology. Transmitting our liturgy over video requires some kit and expertise, but need not cost a fortune nor be too complex for people of all ages to dial into. We have continued to live-stream our worship and are getting better at it. This has allowed us to connect with people across the world including those who might not be able to travel to the City even in less unusual times. It has also been a prompt to some churches to update their website, improve their online “presence” – tasks that may have been overdue but never quite urgent enough, until now.
Amidst concern and confusion we have spoken more to each other and “compared notes” on what we are doing. On a personal level, I have listened to sermons and seen glimpses of churches online that I would not normally visit. The grouping of five churches into the “City Catholics” has come to fruition and we are increasingly engaging with each other and beyond. In doing so we are learning how to do things more effectively ourselves and identifying where we can collaborate.
For many city churches, the pandemic has put an enormous strain on an already strained budget. This remains a very serious issue. However there is nothing like a challenge to focus the mind. As in other areas, the gravity of the situation has nudged us into putting overdue plans into practice. These can be humble ones, like installing a contactless donation system (I last carried cash in about 2012). St Magnus, thanks to one of our parish committee members, saw an opportunity and acted on it: we successfully applied for a £230,000 government grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund to adapt to Covid-19, preserve and digitize our heritage, refurbish and make the place more amendable for future visitors. Our task is now to invest this in such a way so as to put ourselves on a more sustainable footing for the years ahead. Of course, not every church has had this good fortune, and the lessons from one place cannot simply be transferred to another, but the pandemic has prompted us all to take action and we should look to each other for support and inspiration.
Others have said, rightly, that Christmas can never be cancelled. This is very true. However, it can be very greatly disrupted. We should give thanks that this Christmas, unlike Easter, we were permitted to attend Mass if we wished and were physically able. Looking to the year ahead, at the time of writing (mid-January 2021), churches are still open but there are questions on whether we should close. There is no “right” answer to this dilemma. Ultimately this should be a question of balancing public service with the risk to public safety. We now have a better sense of what it means to be cut off from the churches we know and love, what we are missing and what we are not. It was, in my opinion, a matter of deep regret last year that some of our leaders brought extraneous considerations into that calculation, such as the “message” we were purportedly sending to some real or imagined audience, rather than focusing with care and precision on the simple question: “is it safe?”.
As we face the challenges of the future, I hope we will remember what “church” means in its fullest sense: tradition and technology, the mass and modernity, can most definitely coexist.
Alexander Rayner worships at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. This article is adapted from a presentation given to the City Deanery Synod on 14 January 2021. More details about the City Catholics Cluster can be found at www.citycatholics.org.uk