Jonathan Beswick considers sacred space

“By transferring passages [of scripture] and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” Against the Heresies, 1.8.1

So writes St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, at the end of the 2nd Century. He was addressing an acute pastoral situation brought about by the false teachings of an heretical sect called the Valentinians: Irenaeus was determined that they should be rebutted absolutely for the good of the work of the Gospel. In the 2nd Century numerous heresies threatened the health and mission of the Church: they were vividly described by another author “as coming in like locusts to devour the harvests of the Gospel”. The particular crime of the Valentinians was to play fast and loose with Holy Scripture and use portions of it to bolster their own highly-complex and bizarre ‘niche’ teachings. Irenaeus memorably illustrates their method with an analogy that would have resonated immediately with his hearers in the ancient world: he says that they were behaving as one who takes the beautiful image [mosaic] of a king, made from precious stones and jewels, and dismantles it and then rearranges the same jewels to produce the image of a dog or a fox. The ignorant are deceived and the perpetrator persuades them that the “miserable likeness of the fox is in fact the beautiful image of the king.”

These words of Irenaeus bring into sharp relief some current assumptions about the worshipping life of the Church during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic and in the aftermath. In particular they expose the ‘incarnational deficit’ that has now taken root in the heart of the Church of England. Sufficient has already been said elsewhere about the tragically misguided attempt to prevent the beneficed clergy from fulfilling their canonical duty of praying twice daily (at least) in their churches and of ringing the church bell beforehand: what is more troubling is that there seems to be little conception of the realities of sacred space and time being woven together in the lives of the Faithful, particularly as expressed through the daily and weekly rhythms of worship and prayer, within the physical building of the church, led by the priest, accompanied by his people. It is these ancient practices which sanctify time, place and matter and give daily embodiment to the foundational Christian text from St John: “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. (St John 1.14)

It has been intimated again and again that ‘live-streaming’ from our armchairs possesses an equivalence to what we do when worshipping together in church and that in taking sacred vessels, books, candles and vestments into our homes we are somehow demonstrating that the Church is alive and well: the Church cannot be alive and well if our churches are empty and the doors locked! Attempting to reconstruct the worship of Holy Church in our domestic surroundings and then to claim that this is the Church continuing to be the Church is nothing less than to rearrange the precious stones and jewels of the beautiful mosaic of the king and produce an image of a dog or a fox. It is not the Church: it is some of the ministers of the Church, in straitened circumstances, making the best of a bad job and sometimes doing so heroically. Even for beneficed clergy to continue to pray and offer Mass alone each day inside their churches is little more than the best of a bad job: but at least the jewels and precious stones are in the right places, at least the picture of the king remains beautiful, within the sad constraints of the present time, and at least we can look to the future, to happier times, with hope in our hearts. 

We rightly love our churches, saturated as they are with sacred memory and generations of prayer. They have been set apart, consecrated and made holy (as indeed God’s people have been set apart, consecrated and made holy) for the greatest work of all, namely the offering of worship to Almighty God. From this comes all else that we are in Christ and all that we shall ever be. It matters very greatly that the beneficed clergy move might and main to continue to uphold this vital opus dei, and in doing so witness to the truth both of the particularity of the Incarnation and also of the particularity of God’s call to his people here and now. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us at a particular time and in a particular place in keeping with the mysterious purposes of God. The same God calls us, sometimes it seems eccentrically, to continue in this holy tradition of incarnational, self-limiting embodiment in time and place: for the sanctification of that place and its people. That is in the very DNA of the parochial tradition of the Church of England. Hooker, Ferrar, Herbert, Keble, Lowder: local in ambition and style, embedded in what Keble himself calls “the trivial round, the common task”. As we look to the future may our confidence be renewed in this ‘vision glorious’: it is a gift that The Society is peculiarly well-placed to offer back to the people and parishes of England.

Fr Jonathan Beswick is the Vicar of St Peter’s, London Docks