Charlie Bell considers what lessons have been learnt in the current crisis as we look to the future

The past few months have not, perhaps, been the Church of England’s finest. At times it has felt that we have, through a series of rather unforced errors, not quite lived up to our calling as the national church. The coronavirus crisis, of course, hit us rather unexpectedly and without much time to plan; indeed, we went from daily Mass to shut churches rather abruptly and without the chance even to catch breath. Nonetheless, our time in the wilderness and ministering to the sick, lonely, frustrated and fed up has not been without signs of hope, and it is through identifying those signs and learning from missteps that we can best move forward. Two truisms have been touted a lot during the crisis: firstly, that the world will not return to normal for quite some time, and secondly, that things will never be the same again. Indeed, the latter has been asserted rather blithely in conversations about the church, but I’m not sure I quite agree. Has this coronavirus epidemic really thrown everything we know and love about the church into the air?

One of the reassuring features of the coronavirus lockdown has been the clear, demonstrable thirst that our congregations, and indeed many without the Church, have for worship. Whatever one might think of the explosion of ‘internet church’, the fact that such a demand exists is surely a cause for rejoicing. For all the talk of secularism, and the resulting felt need for the Church to be relevant to society, something primeval and fundamentally human remains in the need for this communing with God and with neighbour. Whilst much of the talk around lay presidency or virtual consecration in the Eucharist has profoundly missed the point, nonetheless the fact remains that this companionship, this joining in communion and worshipping the Living God is not something we can simply take away without exposing a deep chasm in our common lives. We seek and find Christ in the Eucharist: when laity can no longer greet Him at the altar, a great yearning remains.

It is not the purpose of this article to review every decision that has been made that has led us to where we are now. Times like these often call for drastic measures and place a huge amount of stress on those making decisions that will inevitably bring criticism and discord. The decision to close churches was heart-wrenchingly painful, and not one that many of us were ready for, even those who had been watching the scenes in Italy and the cancellation of public Mass. Decisions had to be made fast, and often with limited evidence. Yet decisions also need to be made in an open and transparent way, in ways which instil confidence. 

This crisis has made one thing absolutely clear: those setting the rules in the Church must gain the trust of their clergy and people when setting those rules. Whilst it is understandable that General Synod has been delayed, this does not take away the need for governance in the Church; rather it strengthens it. Our bishops are certainly called to lead, yet this cannot be done in a way that appears to suggest the drawbridge coming up and the doors being slammed at the first sign of dissent and criticism. As has become evident, the Church did not have its own medical evidence (directly contradicting several bishops’ communications) but made decisions based on risk assessment, reputation and a self-understanding of ‘setting an example’. These criteria are not in themselves inherently bad criteria on which to base decisions, but those pursuing decisions on such bases should be doing so honestly and openly. To many Catholics, ‘setting an example’ is simply not the right priority – the Church, its clergy and its sacred spaces are signs of God’s grace in the world, a far stronger representation than livestreaming from vicarages. But primarily the Church owes it to both itself and the wider world to speak the truth in love: obfuscating, for whatever reason, is not the way we are called to be, and those who make decisions should show their working.

Firstly, then, as we move forward, it is absolutely essential that we do so in a spirit of openness and humility. Nobody is pretending that any of these decisions is easy, or that there is somehow a pure and perfect way of proceeding. One concrete thing we must do is institute an independent scientific advisory group to review any guidelines the Church of England produces in the light of current evidence and government advice (ideally in an ecumenical way with other sacramental Christians). Such a group’s purview would not be to set the policy for the Church of England – that is rightly reserved to those who have the oversight of the Church. Yet there is no excuse whatsoever for producing guidance that is that isn’t scientifically rigorous and based solely on ameliorating risk. Everything we do in life carries an element of risk, and the much-maligned health and safety guidance on this is absolutely clear – risk assessment is not about completely removing risk, because that is impossible. Instead, it is about weighing up priorities, doing everything we can do reduce risk, and producing a way forward in which this risk is recognised and controlled. Funerals are, for example, risky, like any gathering, but so is leaving bereaved families without the chance to say farewell. Church is inherently risky, but we can also take sensible mitigating steps; the answer is not to shut it down until the eschaton.

One of the great wells from which we have been consistently poor at drawing has been our non-stipendiary clergy, and indeed also those clergy who have been in secular employment before being ordained. In fact, why not stop there – our laity are often crying out for their skills to be used. If this crisis teaches us one thing, the church has plenty of knowledge and understanding within its ranks – it’s just not very good at releasing it. This is not specific to coronavirus – so many parts of our common life are represented among clergy, yet we don’t use them. At local and national level, too often the wrong people are making the wrong decisions, not out of a sense of malice, but simply because we haven’t enlisted the right people, despite them sitting in the first row. There is huge frustration amongst many in the church that they are either ignored or patronised – often in things about which they know a lot more than the person commissioned to pronounce upon it. Meanwhile, some clergy might also learn some discernment about when to speak out on matters that they don’t truly understand. A fundamental shift away from this new form of clericalism is essential if we are to not only have an effective Church, but one which truly empowers its members and uses their God-given gifts.

Some serious theological and practical thinking on how best to commission those who the Church ordains is thus in order. As the crisis has continued, it has become clear that many parishes, cathedrals and indeed dioceses are becoming slowly financially ruined. Yet one enormously concerning outcome has been the decision in some dioceses to furlough curates, many of whom are deacons. This feels totally wrong – those whose very role is to assist the bishop, equip God’s people and live a ‘life of visible self-giving’ have been told, at this crucial moment, to stand down. Times like this call for vision and for a period of radical imagination. Curates could have been requisitioned by diocesan bishops for diocesan projects to feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, providing a co-ordinated and effective display of the hands of Christ in the community. This is not just an opportunity for mission: it is a Gospel imperative. We really must be better at imagining the Kingdom of God beyond a computer screen.

In fact, much has been revealed about the priestly ministry during this period. The things that have been much mourned by clergy (and indeed their parishioners) have not been great strategy documents, or leadership courses, but rather pastoral encounters and joining together in worship around the altar. Such encounters are simply not the same over the internet, however useful this might prove in the interim. Whilst prayer walks and the daily office have been greeted by some as extraordinary new developments, the embodied, incarnational life of Catholic Christianity has never seemed so relevant. There is a huge difference between watching a service whilst on the exercise bike in a penthouse flat in London and gathering intentionally with people unlike us except in their essential identity in Christ. Our worship is not entertainment or theatricals – something we must constantly remind ourselves when we get carried away with the more beautiful elements – however fun it might be. It is worship, it is incarnational, and it is how we are most ourselves and most human. Anyone who saw the Pope’s beautiful Holy Week celebrations will have sensed precisely that – the Eucharist is not only indispensable, it is fundamental. Our life’s meaning starts and ends in that encounter with Christ.

This period has also taught us something about our theology. It may be that some form of internet services is here to stay, and that may not be such a bad thing. Despite some reasonable reservations, some people really have re-encountered the Church through this internet worship (although it’s not clear this will continue once lockdown is over), and likewise some disabled and housebound people hugely value livestreaming. We need to put aside preconceptions and be radical, yet we must be radical whilst drawing on serious, deep theology. Imperfectly participating in a livestreamed Mass is not the same as physical participation, and whilst there might be a place for a mixed economy in the future, that cannot be at the detriment of bringing people to Christ at the altar. Perhaps we are really letting down our housebound parishioners by giving them this second best rather than bringing the Eucharist physically to them. This might require more from our clergy – yet perhaps what it really calls for is a refocusing on the heart of the priesthood and the diaconate, and the laying down of much that tries to make the peripheral central and demands clergy are experts in things they know little about. This cannot just be about words: we must find practical ways of freeing our clergy to be clergy, to be fishers and not managers. 

To many of us, the inability to share in the Easter Feast in the normal way brought the feeling of interim eschatology that we often find on Holy Saturday into sharp relief. Whilst we have focused a great deal on livestreaming the Eucharist, we have perhaps not done enough thinking about what participation is. Whilst it is superficially attractive to include lots of parishioners in a livestreamed Eucharist, we might perhaps ask at what point such a Eucharist loses its integrity and starts to become conformed to our own vainglorious ideas. Despite all the talk of inclusivity, perhaps it is more difficult for people to join in these online services than to simply pop into the back of a church – something that might paradoxically become easier if we revert to primarily standing Mass. Whilst it is of course wonderful that Catholic parishes still place such an emphasis on the Eucharist, have we lost something of the importance of the Daily Office – an office much more well-suited to a participative engagement during periods when we cannot gather together. We must restate and grow in confidence in our belief in the community of saints – those who pray with and for us without ceasing and are truly present at each celebration of the Eucharist. This is not a dead doctrine – it is key to our Catholic understanding – indeed, it is creedal!

As we move forwards, some practical things will be very different. The Mass may remain offered representatively for some time. The laity may mostly be standing. We may face the choice of restricting Mass attendance or substantially increasing the number of Masses offered on a Sunday, as was done in Poland. Ordinations will look different, although this may not be such a bad thing, restoring the sacred ministry to its relationship to the Church and away from a focus on the afterparty. Internet worship will not leave us unless we choose to do so, and before jumping we should be sure we know what we’re doing. At the fore must be a pastoral, serious theology, steeped in the wisdom of the Church.

We cannot possibly find ‘new ways of being church’ without knowing what the Church is by its very nature.  A serious response to this crisis requires ressourcement – a return to the sources, to serious theology, to the faith itself, to truly understand what makes The Church. This must be a reinvigorated, confident faith and trust in incarnational Catholic Christianity – not a church that manages or copes, but a church that proclaims the live-saving Gospel of Christ and seeks to inhabit the Kingdom. This is a church that proclaims mercy, forgiveness, joy and hope in the resurrection, that is welcoming, that truly believes in the Kingdom and the transforming love of God. This Church stands on solid ground and is not defeated even by this dreadful virus. Faith of our Fathers, Holy Faith: we will be true to thee till death.

Dr Charlie Bell is a lecturer in Medicine at the University of Cambridge and National Medical Director’s Clinical Fellow.