In the first of two articles Edward Dowler looks back at responses to the pandemic
I’d like to start with two contrasting views of the direction in which the Church might now be heading. The first is from the Dominican scholar Fr Thomas Joseph White OP, written now over a year ago:
… whatever the particular parameters of a given culture and its safety or threat from the virus, the Church’s suspension of public sacramental practice cannot be of indefinite duration. At some point, life will have to go on for everyone with some degree of risk, however marginal… Widespread sacramental life cannot be reinitiated only when every risk is eliminated, especially if it becomes increasingly apparent that that time will never come.1
The second is a more recent document issuing from the diocese of Bath and Wells, entitled Where are We Now? A Diocesan Snapshot which, interestingly, seems now to have been withdrawn from the diocesan website:
Both clergy and lay people expressed relief at the absence of the weekly routine of Sunday services. This widespread feeling of liberation led many to strongly advocate a desire not to spring back to pre-Covid ways of being church, and to embrace a new way of doing things. It seems to be something that has been revealed during the pandemic – that much of what was happening in the churches was maintained purely out of a sense of duty. It also begs the question of how we let church become something so onerous, and how we might stop that happening again.2
It is probably best to be quite open that my own position lies with the first rather than the second of these statements. In my ministry as Archdeacon of Hastings I have frequently been expected to advise parishes on how best to comply with the Covid regulations in their own contexts, and have done so to the best of my ability. I have relied heavily on the guidance that has emerged from the Church of England and have been grateful for its detail and voluminous scope.
However, personally, from near the start of the pandemic, I have had some deep misgivings about what was happening. First of all, I have wondered whether the response to Covid has always been proportional to the actual threat this virus posed to most people. Secondly, I’ve questioned whether measures such as lockdowns, distancing and masks really were effective in the ways that were presented. And thirdly, I’ve often felt that, even if the measures taken were both proportionate and effective, legislation that incarcerated healthy people in their homes, with the consequent social, economic and indeed spiritual damage this has caused, might in fact never be morally justified – especially for such an extended period as we have experienced it in the United Kingdom. The issue of so-called vaccine passports opens a fresh area of questioning and dissatisfaction.
In an interview with the much-vilified Oxford epidemiologist Professor Sunetra Gupta, I was struck by her observation that one aspect of this crisis has been that various individuals have tended to comment on matters that fall outside their actual area of expertise, and I have tried as much as possible to avoid that this afternoon. So, having indicated what my own questions have been, I would like to make it clear that that the only expertise I can offer is that of a pastor in the Church. I do not have specialist knowledge in fields such as medicine, public health, economics or the law, all of which would help to illuminate the questions I have raised. However, I hope that this means that even those of you who on scientific, legal or moral grounds would not share the same reservations that I have had that you might to some extent be able to stay on board as we seek together to envision what the Church of the future might be. Because, although I instinctively agree with Fr White’s view quoted at the beginning of this lecture, the somewhat unsatisfactory paragraph from the Bath and Wells document at least indicates one truth: that things are unlikely to return to how they were: it is never possible simply to go back in time, and neither is it necessarily desirable.
So how do we go forward? The image that keeps coming into my mind comes from a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago many years ago. There was a display in the entrance hall of the way in which this and other galleries used to display their works of art to the public. The pictures would all be put on a wall together, in different styles of frame and, as it were, jostling with one another for position. In modern times, curators have taken a very different approach. Nowadays, a single picture will occupy its own space on the wall. Re-framed and re-hung in this way, the very same paintings have renewed attention drawn to their particular beauty and character. In this lecture then I would like to suggest that we might re-frame and re-hang five aspects of the life of the Church. Each has been to a greater or lesser extent lost in recent months, but now we can have a new awareness of its particular beauty and importance.
The Human Face
The first picture that I would like to re-frame and exhibit is that of the human face. For months now it has been covered up by a mask in public settings. During the lockdown, I became a parish priest of one of our local parishes in the town where we live and, undoubtedly, the most difficult challenge has been getting to know a new group of people when their faces are covered with masks. Despite the serious debate about their efficacy, the mask has somehow become an almost totemic object. They have been used as almost signs of virtue by people as eminent as the President of the United States along with Anglican bishops and other clergy, who proudly show themselves masked up on their Twitter avatars: a pretty unlikely source of infection. Others, notably the American state of Oregon, have expressed an intention that mask mandates will continue for ever.
The importance of the face is surely central to both Judaism and Christianity. Ancient Greek philosophers had, as Christians would see it, many very penetrating insights about God. And yet, Plato’s ‘form of the good’ or Aristotle’s ‘prime mover’ are completely impersonal: they have no face that can be turned towards us. By contrast, the religion of Israel is one that longs to see the face of God: the Psalmist asks, ‘How long, O Lord will you forget me for ever/How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Ps 13.1). Unlike the ‘god of the philosophers’, the God of the Bible makes his face shine upon us and lifts up his countenance upon us (Num 6.26). He personally encounters us, and we can come to know him: ‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face Lord, do I seek’ (Ps 27.8). The face is a metaphor for God’s presence: his attention.
In chapter 33 of the book of Exodus, Moses speaks with the Lord ‘face to face as one speaks to a friend’ (Ex 33.11, cf. Deut 34.10), but somewhat paradoxically it is in the same chapter that the Lord says to Moses ‘you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen’ (Ex 33.23). Christ, the new Moses is the one who will do what not even Moses could do: ‘No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart who has made him known’ (Jn 1.18); whoever has seen Christ has seen the Father (Jn 14.9). ‘What did Jesus actually bring’, asks Joseph Ratzinger in his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, ‘… the answer is very simple: God… He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him’. That which Moses himself could do truly but only partially is fulfilled in Jesus, and will be completed eschatologically: ‘for now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see (God) face to face’ (1 Cor 13.12).
These theological insights have a vital human corollary. Just as we are to seek the face of the Lord, he encounters us in a similar way. The underlying experience of the Psalmist, for example, is surely that God knows us intimately; that he knows our faces: ‘Behold our shield, O God: look on the face of your anointed’ (Ps 84.9). In his book The God of Jesus Christ, Ratzinger reflects on the dehumanising tendencies of authoritarian dictatorships, such as the Nazi Germany of his own youth, to turn everything and everyone into statistics, and thereby to efface the face. The Christian vision of God and the human person is the precise opposite:
The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a ‘world machinery’. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.3
In his meditations on the Stations of the Cross, the Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe writes in a similar way about Veronica who, according to pious legend, wipes the face of Jesus and receives an image of his face upon the cloth. This is what he says:
We are the body of Christ and so we must be his face. In Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, the priest calls the human face “the mirror image of God.” We are smiled upon by the invisible God and this is mirrored in our faces. As children we learn to smile by being smiled at by our parents and others. We gather around babies, and make funny noises, and smile. We learn a gaze filled with grace from the gracious smile with which God looks at us. Pope Francis said, “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze”… The old pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says, “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and the loneliness”.4
So let us hasten to reclaim the fundamental importance of the human face.
The song of the Church
This is the second picture that I would like to reframe and rehang. In the unlovely language to which we have become accustomed over the past year, here is the official line on singing:
COVID-19 spreads from person to person through small droplets, aerosols and through direct contact. Singing, playing some musical instruments, shouting and physical activity increases the risk of transmission through small droplets and aerosols.5
During one of the lockdowns, I went to assist my diocesan bishop at the licensing of a new priest-in-charge in the parishes of Ore: a very deprived suburb of Hastings. Music was played both by the organist and also through an electronic system. But, in accordance with the regulations, only the small church choir was allowed to sing. Spontaneously, however, a wonderful thing happened that I expect has been replicated in churches around the country. Although muzzled by their masks and visors, I became aware that sound was coming from the congregation: they literally could not stop themselves from echoing the tunes that were being played. This was not some coordinated act of disobedience: they were aware of the rules and not deliberately seeking to disobey them. But what it revealed is that the song of the Christian community is literally irrepressible: it cannot be held back because God is its source and origin, and it seeks to outpour itself to God in return. As the Psalmist expresses it: He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord’ (Ps 40.3).
One famous account of conversion emphasises the power of music to convert and move people towards Christ. ‘How copiously I wept at your hymns and canticles’, writes St Augustine in book Nine of his Confessions, ‘how intensely I was moved by the lovely harmonies of your singing Church! Those voices flooded my ears, and the truth was distilled into my heart until it overflowed in loving devotion; my tears ran down, and I was the better for them.’6 As bishop and pastor, Augustine was to remember that early experience. In his many sermons on the Psalms, he emphasises that the songs that his congregation loved to sing, and that move them to worship and adoration must not only be sounds on the lips but something that they understand,7 hence the need for his sermons about them. However, whilst emotion needed to be matched with understanding, the singing itself is fundamental because it is this that moves us to love God, and love, in Augustine’s teaching, is the power that moves us, for good or ill, wherever we go.8 Singing thus articulates but also fosters our loving response to God: something church congregations of course instinctively know.
‘The singer of praise,’ says Augustine to his congregation, ‘is not only performing musically but showing love for the one who is sung about. To confess God by praise is a way of preaching him; to pour out passion in song is the way of a lover’.9 Ultimately, he teaches that an extraordinary thing happens: the singer of the song actually him or herself becomes the song of praise that he or she is singing. As he puts it in a sermon on Psalm 149,
Sing with your voices, sing with your hearts, sing with your lips, sing with your lives. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song.’ Do you ask what you should sing in praise of him? Listen: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song.’ Are you looking for praises to sing? ‘His praise is in the assembly of the saints.’ The singer himself is the praise contained in the song.10
So the second picture that we need to re-frame and re-hang is the music and song of the Church, with a fresh consciousness of its fundamental importance, that as in the Orthodox and in some ways the evangelical traditions, it is not just an optional adornment, but a central and irreplaceable part of Christian worship. It should never again be curtailed.
The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings. A version of this article was delivered as The Peter Toon Memorial Lecture at Pusey House in May, 2021. The article will be concluded next month.
1 First Things, 30 April, 2020.
2 Where are We Now? A diocesan snapshot, Diocese of Bath and Wells, p.2.
3 Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ, 23-4.
4 Radcliffe, Stations of the Cross, p. 34.
5 COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
6 Augustine, conf. 9.6.14.
7 ‘We have joyfully sung this psalm with you, and now I beg you to study it carefully with us’ en. Ps. 44.1.
8 Augustine, conf. 13.9.10.
9 Augustine, en. Ps. 72.1.
10 Augustine, s. 34.6.