Simon Morris considers episcopal correspondence
Docetism, you may recall, is the heresy that Jesus only appeared to be human but was not substantially so. The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England seem to have embraced a new twenty-first century form of this challenge to the Divine Order as they banned the clergy from going to church.
The archbishops asserted (Letter, 24th March), “We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.” The London Bishops joined the bandwagon after some initial reticence (letter, 7th April), “We would not want to be seen to encourage any laxity in the requirement to stay indoors.” Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But there was no other reason given for the clergy not to go to the Church next door to them. No facts that it had led to greater contact with people, such as is rightly banned by social distancing measures. No sense that the clergy’s not going to Church could be proved to help the amazing NHS staff. It was all about appearing to behave in the correct way.
When I was growing up, we were taught as children that appearances were very important. My mother refused to shout even in the back garden because she didn’t want Mrs Paul next door hearing our business. I doubt the elderly Mrs Paul would have heard much or been bothered much. The ridiculousness of basing a life on such notions was hilariously demonstrated by Patricia Routledge in the BBC TV series Keeping up Appearances.
And to add insult to injury, these proclamations were given with a timing that couldn’t be more ironic. The archbishops’ first diktat appeared in our inboxes on the eve of the Annunciation. When the teenage girl was told she was to give birth to a child out of wedlock in first century Palestine, there’s no record that she was concerned about what other people would say. “What would the neighbours think?” Keeping up appearances could have severely got in the way of God’s plan if it had been a priority of Mary. Then, the London Bishops followed suit in Holy Week. As we prepared to read our Lord telling Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, the bishops cited headlines from the Daily Telegraph to justify the cessation of live-streaming in the northern bit of the nation’s capital.
Of course, we mustn’t go against the Government rules. We must stay at home so that the NHS is not overwhelmed by the numbers of people suffering with COVID-19. We must have a concern for people’s wellbeing and safety. But St Mary’s is closer to my kitchen than my study is. I walk on no public land to get there. There is no danger of anyone being five metres close to me, let alone two. Indeed, the Corona Virus legislation permitted clergy to go to their churches. But the episcopal preoccupation with appearances meant there was no room for facts. No instances were recorded, as far as I know, of individuals banging on our church doors, forming illegal gatherings, because they knew priests were live-streaming inside.
There was another annoying bit in the archbishops’ 24th March letter: “Our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning.” I agree; but then why do they insist that we count people coming and force us to fill out those awful forms telling them the numbers? I suspect part of the reason those who run the Church of England require these statistics is so that they can tell those in the corridors of power what is done by the thousands of faithful Christians who keep our churches going. But again that’s all about appearances and worrying how the world sees us.
In the second letter of the archbishops reiterating the ban, dated 27th March, their Graces introduced another argument: “Staying at home and demonstrating solidarity with the rest of the country at this testing time is the right way of helping and ministering to our nation.” Solidarity is important in Christian theology: Christ humbles Himself and is even tempted in every way that we are. However, in being fully human, He doesn’t cease to be fully God. What the archbishops have required of the clergy is a solidarity that suffocates the priestly identity “to preside at the Lord’s table” (as the Common Worship ordinal puts it). All the people of this nation have been asked to make sacrifices and the clergy are not exempt from that. I’ve been very moved by e-mails I’ve received from my congregation following the Masses from St Mary’s they’ve watched on-line. They’ve been comforted by knowing the worship continues to be offered in the place they love by the priests who have been sent to show God’s love for them. How sad that the chief pastors have cut off this means of nourishing the flock.
Father Simon Morris is the Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Tottenham.