My childhood church was built by a team of Presbyterian elders which included one of my great great grandfathers. Some of my earliest memories of faith are in that place: the smell of the aged wooden pews, the vibrations of the huge pipe organ, the stained glass depicting the four evangelists, the whispery touch of my very own hymn book, the rumbling sound of two hundred voices intoning the Lord’s Prayer which to my childlike thinking sounded like God was joining in…
I have continued to have a deep connection with church buildings throughout my life. They have been places of profound solace and encounter especially when I needed that most. Almost every significant event in my life has been marked through a visit to my place of worship. In my years as a priest, nowhere has felt as much like home as the Holy Table where I preach and preside in season and out of season week after week after week. In my five years as incumbent to my parish, I have been astounded again and again at the power of my church building to speak to its community – churchgoers or not – of the God with them, God for them, God in the midst of them. To be asked to refrain from entering my Church, to no longer offer prayers in that sanctuary, to be obliged not to live stream even solitary worship from that familiar altar has been painful indeed.
I labour this point because I think that in the recent controversy about the closure of our church buildings, there can be an assumption that those of us who aren’t howling in protest simply care less about worship or value less the buildings in which worship is offered. I think any such assumption would be over simplistic. I think that there are other factors at play, and I want to offer a few observations from a feminist perspective on the debate thus far.
The first is to make an observation about who is doing the protesting. The vast majority of “noise” which I have experienced has come from men. And predominantly white, able-bodied, (relatively) powerful men. With every generalisation there will be the exceptions, but I find this trend interesting and it has caused me to ponder why. I wonder to what extent that the experience of feeling marginal is much more difficult to those who have not been marginalised before? Women, people of colour and those ministering with disabilities are much more used to being on the edges of both society and the church and having to find creative and flexible ways to exercise the ministry to which God calls them. They are familiar with the grief and pain of such experiences, but also the gift. So when asked to walk away from the beloved buildings we treasure, despite believing fully in all those sacred spaces are and offer, we are not quite so blindsided as our colleagues?
Perhaps, too, there is something about knowing the value of the “other” spaces. You don’t have to be much of a feminist to spot the public-private/domestic polarisation that emerges in the discourse. Public space is good; private/domestic space is bad. For some reason the offering of communion at a kitchen table is both something to rail at and to mock. The most elementary student of feminist theory will also be aware that the public sphere has historically been masculine space and the private/domestic sphere, feminine, and of course, whatever is associated with the feminine is regarded as being of lower value and status. So my suggestion to those who find the movement of worship into the domestic sphere so gut-wrenchingly offensive is to notice how your gendered biases are informing your reaction. For both women and men, they will influence you more deeply than you think.
Domestic space is not profane. The Gospels are full of Jesus spending time with people in their homes – there are more accounts of the incarnate God in private homes than there are in temples and synagogues. What is clear from the scriptures, and known well by those whose agency and ministry is not always supported in public spaces, is that God is present and active in upper rooms, around dining tables and in living rooms – today as much as once upon a time in Palestine. We despise the activity of God at kitchen tables at our peril.
I would debate how truly it is private either. In sharing services online from my home, the worship I lead is more accessible to many in my community. Hundreds of people have been invited into my living room, study and garden. Hospitality is a huge theme in Christian theology, and the quality of the host-guest relationship is enhanced when the experience is not mediated through a formal, public building. I remember seeing a tweet on Easter Sunday evening from a young man who had found the intimacy of being invited into the Archbishop’s kitchen to share worship – even virtually- a turning point in his journey of faith. The Church does not lack visibility at this time of crisis. It continues to offer prayer and worship publicly up and down the land. It is simply being offered differently.
Feelings and Fear
One of the repeated criticisms of the current restrictions on worship is that the Church will be seen to be afraid. Again, I find this an interesting and gendered perspective. Firstly, if you do not have some healthy fear of a virus which has so far bereaved in the region of 30,000 families in the last six weeks, I wonder if you have been paying attention. Also as a woman, I have not spent decades of my life being made to feel shame at showing fear. Being seen to be weak or vulnerable is not the worst thing that can happen to me. I do not have such a visceral dread of being seen to be afraid.
Fear is quite a healthy and reasonable emotion in certain circumstances. A global pandemic might well be a good example. I am surrounded by people who are afraid. As an ex-medic, I have huge numbers of friends who work in the NHS – these “heroes” have been horribly afraid. My friends who live with significant health problems are very afraid. My teacher colleagues from my church school looking after children without social distancing or PPE are afraid. My neighbours without secure incomes are afraid. If we are the Church for the nation, isn’t it appropriate that we can acknowledge and share in those fears? I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t understand the reasonable fears of this time in our shared lives. Is the Church demonstrating that it understands those fears and takes seriously the need to stay at home – and in doing so, modelling for those without any choice, that their home can be a place of sacred encounter – such a shameful thing to do?
Of course, God tells us repeatedly not to fear but to trust. However, this is not the sort of trust that goes driving without a seatbelt or jumps out an aeroplane without a parachute. It is the trust that in all things, we will encounter a God who loves us and who can work God’s good purposes amongst us. It is the trust that a frightened wheat-thresher might with God’s help become a warrior, that an unwed pregnant teenager might birth the world’s salvation, that a church pushed to the margins by a crisis might find new life and new hope in the experience.
[Of course, those foremost in refusing to acknowledge any fear in our current situation are our political leaders. Vulnerability is simply not an option, and it is this emotionally stunted perspective that pushes a man, two weeks out of ICU, to put on his suit and clap on his doorstep and through ragged breaths to make speeches to the nation. Those who accuse the Bishops of being government “prefects” for supporting the stay at home advice ironically are the ones supporting this deeply unhelpful “heroism” by insisting the Church must not show fear. But I digress…]
As I mentioned, I am an ex-medic and still have many links to the healthcare professions. Most of the people I love most in the world are serving in clinics and hospitals around the country. They have few choices about the geographical spaces in which they offer their ministry. They have had to have difficult conversations with family members about how they will manage the risk of passing on infection to their loved ones and what they will do if they become unwell. At this point, I run out of words as I attempt to describe what this feels like.
Against this backdrop, to hear people argue that clergy should be allowed to worship in churches “because they are keyworkers” sounds extremely hollow. I am a keyworker. I have taken quite a few funerals in recent weeks and helped keep a Foodbank open ensuring the hungry of my community are fed. These are things that cannot be done from my living room and so it is vital I have keyworker status. But worship absolutely can. And to use my keyworker status to do publicly something which need not be done in geographical public space – so undermining that already shaky “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” message – feels like an abuse of the privilege. We have a lot of privilege as clergy already. It is a privilege to be able to offer the majority of our ministry from safe spaces. It is a privilege to have influence in our communities. Please use your privilege well.
Finally, this whole blog is really an invitation to – as the saying goes – check your privilege. There will probably be much I have written with which you disagree. That is fine. My ethos is not to be right or to have the last word, but rather offer reflections into a shared conversation. And I think the quality of the conversation would improve if we all examined our privilege, reflected on our unconscious prejudices and made space for the perspective of those whose experience has historically been crowded out.