As this issue of New Directions goes to press we are in the midst of the third national lockdown. This lockdown has differed from previous lockdowns as the government have made an exemption for places of worship, allowing them to remain open as essential services. This gesture has shown that at least somewhere in government there is an understanding that people’s faith, and the ability to access places of worship, has an impact on their wellbeing. Soon after the nation went into lockdown it became clear that some churches would close encouraged by local government directives and by many bishops. What has been important is that each church community was able to make its own decision on whether to close or not. This was not something that was imposed from above upon parish clergy and PCCs but rather gave each church autonomy to consider the guidance and make an informed decision. For some, having undertaken risk assessments and consultations closing was the right option; for others, staying open was safe and the best option for them. What was saddening is that so many clergy took to social media to criticise, particularly, those parishes which made the decision to stay open. At times there were rather unseemly spats between clergy as they debated something that was an individual parish’s decision. There were also attempts to characterise the debate along party lines with some claiming that the House of Bishops, by not insisting on church closure, were somehow submitting to pressure only from Traditional Catholics and Conservative Evangelicals. The simple fact is that there are clergy from the full spectrum of the Church of England who have decided to remain open, just as there those from across the spectrum of the Church of England who have closed. To make this an issue of church party or style, at this time in our national life, is not becoming of the clergy, and is simply factually inaccurate. The decision to stay open is just as costly as the decision to close, and both should be treated with equal respect and understanding.
When the Oxford Movement fathers set out on their work or revitalising the Church of England they understood that the Church of England was part of the Catholic Church, that is to say it was part of the Universal Church. There was an understanding among future generations of Anglo-Catholics that what our movement was trying to do was not something on the fringe but rather at the centre of what it was to be a Christian. Whilst at times clergy and laity may have had a penchant for exotic liturgy it was all grounded in what the Universal Church teaches. Our Catholic life is not a museum piece, it is not something to be looked at with curiosity but rather an attempt to draw the whole Church of England back to her Catholic roots. We cannot simply be about recreating the liturgies and life of the past but rather finding ways to engage with the world around us. That is not to say that the way to engage might not be in older forms of the liturgy (as Pope Benedict XVI encouraged as part of the New Evangelisation) but let us do these things in line with what the church around the world is doing. Indeed, the use of the Book of Common Prayer has seen great growth in many parishes. We are seeking to draw closer to the Universal Church, not to set ourselves adrift further from it. Liturgy is of course only one small way in which we seek to draw our church closer in unity, but it is an important visible sign which sets out our intentions clearly. We believe that what we do is true, it is not some mimicking of a style or part of some historical re-enactment. All that we do must be done with care and integrity, the integrity that is proper to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we look to the future, and to a world and church post-Covid 19, we need to keep in our prayers the many of our parishes who find themselves in vacancy at this time. We need to keep at the centre of our prayers the prayer for vocations. We need more faithful priests to serve in our parishes and communities. What is clear is that in the future there will be difficult decisions to be made about the closure or amalgamation of parishes. We should also pray for priests and those in leadership who lead in our churches at this difficult time. Let us pray that the church can continue to serve those most in need in our communities with love and a vitality that speaks of the love of God for all people.