Richard Norman considers the effects of the third national lockdown
To the surprise of many, including many churchmen, public worship in England has been able to continue during the third lockdown, subject to COVID-security measures. Public worship has thus been numbered among the ‘reasonable excuses’ and essential activities exempted from the basic stay-at-home restrictions. But what justifies this decision? The likely answer from the perspective of the Government is that – having been challenged to provide it – nevertheless there is as yet no evidence of increased transmission within places of worship, no doubt due to the conscientiousness with which many clergy and laypeople have approached their responsibilities in this regard. But this unexpected exemption also provides an opportunity to articulate what Christian Tradition has to say about the essential character of public worship.
In response to the exemption, the Church of England – in the person of the Bishop of London – acknowledged that ‘the Church is here to offer comfort and spiritual support to everyone’, but within a message which focussed more on the severity of the pandemic, and the need scrupulously to follow social distancing requirements. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was clearer in the warmth of the welcome with which he greeted the Government’s announcement, and explained that the ‘regular practice of our faith in God is a well-established source of both personal resilience and dedicated service to those in need’; he further characterised public worship as an ‘essential source of energy for the common good.’ In so doing, he was repeating the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which notes (1072) that while public worship ‘does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church’, yet it is from the liturgy that the fruits of faith – in service and fraternity – derive. The Bishop of London’s words (admittedly couched in an idiom more readily comprehensible in Whitehall) evince only a therapeutic understanding of public worship – it is what I do to feel better. The Archbishop of Westminster’s words go further, identifying public worship as the basis for the life of the community. But it was in a statement by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland (a jurisdiction in which public worship has again been suspended during the new lockdown) that the essential nature of public worship was most clearly articulated. They wrote not only of ‘the spiritual, social and psychological benefits provided by continuing public worship’, but also – and crucially – of worship as ‘a duty humanity owes to God’. Such is of course the teaching of the Prayer Book, that ‘it is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord.’ The thanksgiving to which these words make reference is the celebration of the Eucharist to which we are invited in the opening dialogue of the Eucharistic Prayer, ‘Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.’ In the modern Common Worship rite, the Eucharist is described as ‘our duty and our joy’: certainly our experience of participation in the liturgy should console and enthuse us, but even without this therapeutic benefit, a definite and primary obligation remains.
In the most recent translation of the Roman Catholic liturgy, the Latin phrase (dignum et iustum est) which the Prayer Book renders, ‘It is meet and right’ is translated, ‘It is right and just’ – that is, the act of worship is an act of justice, in which we give God what is His due. Worship constitutes a moral obligation, and obligations arise out of the virtue of justice. To be just is to render to others what is owed to them, e.g. paying debts or punishing wrongdoers. (Importantly, from the outset, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations included an exemption for participation in, or fulfilment of, legal obligations.) Human beings owe eucharistic worship to God, because only in the Eucharist can we offer to God that which is an acceptable gift in gratitude for our redemption, namely the gift of Christ himself. The wider liturgical life of the Church derives from this eucharistic heart: as the Book of Homilies puts it, ‘There is nothing in all man’s life… so needful to be spoken of, and daily to be called upon, as hearty, zealous, and devout prayer.’
Specifically public worship is a fulfilment of the Fourth Commandment, to keep holy the Sabbath day. Someone unable to leave their home, for example, on account of shielding, would not be breaking this commandment if they did not come to Mass; however, someone else who was able to attend public worship, but chose instead to avail themselves of the therapeutic benefit of shopping, for instance, would be in breach of God’s law. To be just is to render to others what is owed to them – and, from this, not to give to a third-party what belongs to someone else. Adultery within a marriage, for example, is sinful because one is giving to a third party what one has promised to one’s spouse: shopping on a Sunday morning – while Mass is being celebrated – is cheating on God by denying to Him what belongs to Him, and giving this time and attention to someone or something else. Whereas prayer can of course take place in all circumstances, yet the example of Christ and his apostles, and the patriarchs before them, is that ‘so oft as they could conveniently, they resorted to the material temples, there with the rest of the congregation to join in prayer, and true worship.’
In his homily for the Epiphany, Pope Francis recognised that ‘if we do not worship God, we will worship idols.’ The inclination to worship is instinctive in human beings: but, in common with so much in the human person, it has been corrupted and needs to be purified and reoriented, away – for instance – from the worship of money, of power, of popularity. Public worship does just this, reforming the inclination to worship by directing it to its proper object. Perhaps the greatest risk of misdirection lies in what is in effect the worship of the self: worship cannot, as per a purely or even primarily therapeutic understanding, be about attention to my own needs; if it could, there would be no basis upon which to deem worship essential, so long as other means to self-gratification remained available. By reforming the inclination to worship, and redirecting it towards God, one’s entire personal programme of acting justly is enhanced and supported, such that one will better be able to practice justice in other areas of life too. As Fr Kevin O’Reilly OP has explained, ‘Since the ultimate object of the will is union with God, it follows that the virtue that specifically promotes the attainment of this end – the virtue of religion – has particular import because it aims at rectifying the will… In brief, this virtue promotes the optimal intellectual and moral flourishing of individuals as well as the realisation of justice in society.’ The Anglican divine Richard Hooker emphasised the profound connection between the discharge of religious duties, and the overall justice of society: ‘So natural is the union of Religion with Justice’, he wrote, ‘that we may boldly deem there is neither, where both are not’ (Laws, V, i2).
Perhaps unwittingly, a secular Government has given the Church this unique opportunity to expound the essential character of public worship. Having been reminded that what we provide is an essential service, there is thus a strong rationale – and, in the Church of England, ordinarily a canon legal requirement – to continue the provision of this service, for those desirous of accessing it, and safely able to do so.
Fr Richard Norman SSC is the Vicar of St George’s, Bickley.