When bishops retire they get braver. Freed from collective responsibility when they hang up their miters, in retirement, they find their prophetic voice. To be fair, Peter Selby, former Bishop of Worcester, is an exception that proves this rule. Never a member of the awkward squad, he has always been resolutely independently-minded. And long respected in many quarters of the church.
So when someone of Bishop Selby’s stature pens a stinging rebuke of the current lockdown policy of the House of Bishops — and in the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet — one can be sure that many will sit up and take notice. Indeed, when he writes that “many in the C of E feel let down by the official response,” he is possibly even understating the matter. There is deep discontent with the church at the moment, and even with the House of Bishops itself.
The “official response” that he refers to is the policy of not allowing clergy to enter their churches on their own for personal private prayer or to live-stream services. This is not a Roman Catholic policy — only a C of E one. Selby has no argument against closing churches for public worship.
But when a priest lives right next door to the church, or when their vicarage is even physically attached to the church and connected by an internal door, even then the priest is not allowed in to pray or to record worship on behalf of the community.
Of course, he or she is asked regularly to go into the church to make sure everything is OK for insurance and safety purposes. But absolutely not for prayer or to broadcast prayer. Even when the Vicarage is stuffed full of screaming stir-crazy children, that is still where we are supposed to be Zooming our peaceful, meditative services from. As Selby argues:
“Foremost among the reasons given why clergy could not enter their churches was the need to “set an example” of clergy as law-abiding citizens staying at home. The case was never made that clergy are key workers, exercising an essential public function, one rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches and the liturgical function they carry out within them, especially in Passiontide and Eastertide”. – PETER SELBY, THE TABLET
It is clear that Bishop Selby sees this as an historic moment in which the church reveals how much it has lost confidence in its own distinctive values, looking instead to the government to set the moral tone. This loss of confidence could well be related to the churches’ historic failure to deal with internal safeguarding issues. But whatever the reason, a criticism that the current church leadership sees itself as little more than the perfect prefect of the bureaucratic (secular) state is now growing. Selby goes on:
“Livestreaming from within our churches and cathedrals would have showcased their message to a wider public, reassuring them that the fundamental fabric of our common life and history – of which our large and small churches (including the historic Lambeth Palace chapel) are an integral part – had not succumbed to coronavirus fear”
“The Archbishop of Canterbury could easily broadcast from the historic Lambeth Palace chapel. No one would be at risk if he did that on his own. And all he has to do to get there is to walk downstairs from his flat. But instead, he conducts national services from his kitchen. And so, Selby concludes, the Church of England’s bishops: “seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory.” – PETER SELBY, THE TABLET
Over at The Critic magazine, Fr Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, puts it even more succinctly: “Church buildings narrate the development of a community more than any other. … But this time round the church has written itself out of the story.”
As a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion (ACANZP) and resident in the Diocese of Christchurch – where our local Bishop +Peter Carrell is now, in concert with Government policy (with the eexpected return to Level 2 to our NZ Rules of Lockdown) going to allow local clergy to podcast worship Services from our parish churches, with proper provision being made for the observance of Government Health Rules – it is very interesting to read of Canon Giles Fraser’s comments about the reluctance of the Church of England to allow its clergy, at present, to podcast worship services from any of its official church buildings.
The ABC’s reason for this – that clergy should personally have to identify in this way with the members of their local congregations – would seem to discount and dismiss the possible benefits arising from any social and spiritual capital that might be gained from the prospect of services of worship being carried out in buildings specifically erected for, and dedicated to, this activity during the history and posterity of the Christian Church.
What is at stake here, in the question of whether, or not – given the restrictions needed for the safety and proximity clergy and any others involved in the conduct of worship – the carrying out of such worship would constitute a breach of the conditions applicable to any other activity providing a public service in and to the community.
Television broadcasts, for instance, provide one such example, where a national public broadcasting service remains available to everyone without let or hindrance, without limiting the origin of such broadcasts to the private homes of the presenters – with no access to their normal studio environments.
A further point being made by Canon Giles is that a category of people who would not normally have access to any worship activity in a church building – the housebound, or those in an institution for the care of the sick or disabled – could now, in the current environment, have access to the worship that other people are able to enjoy during the current situation of the closure of Church buildings to the general public.
What also seems to have been forgotten by the ABC and the Church hierarchy is the fact that a public broadcast of Church Worship on a Sunday provides access to an experience of Anglican Worship to many more people than might otherwise be either be disposed or able to attend such an activity – at a time when most people are confined to their homes.
At a time of sensory deprivation for everyone, this opportunity for spiritual refreshment by means of televised worship broadcast from their local parish church – maybe with the help of a virtually-assembled choral group – could be a means of encouragement and nourishment of community togetherness that could be valuable in helping us all to face whatever confronts us into the future.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand