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Thought for the week - 16 May

Acts 1. 1-11 (Ascension Day) & John 17. 6-19 (Sunday after Ascension, Easter 7) Acts 1. v9 – “(Jesus) was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” John 17 v11 – “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.” v17b “I have sent them into the world.” It seems to me that there are parallels to be drawn between the experience of the early church, the disciples, and our experience over the last twelve months or so. The disciples, even though distraught and then confused and dismayed by the death of Jesus were overjoyed at his resurrection. Then, just when they were getting used to the idea, he was taken from them again, and ‘a cloud hid him from their sight.’ They just stood there, seemingly stunned.

We have certainly been through some confusions and thick cloud over the period of Covid. For many, God certainly seemed to be hidden. In what is now commonly accepted as a deep mistake, in the first lockdown churches were closed altogether just when people needed them the most. People could still go shopping for food but not for spiritual food. For a time even priests were forbidden from going into church to pray. Some clergy were even threatened with disciplinary action for going into church. Many people felt betrayed, felt as though the Church had abandoned them. At St Stephen’s as with many other parishes, we refused to comply in the sense that though of course for two separate periods public worship in the building was stopped, the round of worship never ceased. The Mass was offered day by day and week by week throughout lockdown, the full rites of Holy Week and Easter were celebrated, and the offices said and the bell rung. There were attempts at least to keep in touch and to provide devotional materials to all who wanted them. But nevertheless, many still felt as though the presence of God had abandoned them and they were stood like the disciples looking and wondering. No doubt lessons have been learned. I for one will go on for a long time wondering if we should have closed for public worship the second time, whether we did enough. All I can say is that we did what we could and what seemed right at the time. Other churches did more. Other churches majored on ‘on-line’ provision. So much so that in the Church of England at large, ‘on-line’ is being seen, even promoted as a long-term alternative to what is becoming called ‘on-site’ worship. Many of us see great dangers in this. Of course, there is a place for on-line that we never knew about before. But it is not an alternative. Our readings make it clear that we are an incarnational church. The physical is important to God. Jesus did not come as some kind of spirit or phantom, but a real, fleshy human being. Our worship is corporate, it is physical, it is sacramental. It is simply not possible to be a fully eucharistic community ‘on-line.’ Fr Stephen Jones, a former curate of St Stephen’s now Vicar of Carnforth, expresses these concerns very eloquently: (quoted with permission) Whilst I am disquieted about the uncritical embrace among so many in the churches of the normativity of livestreaming and recording worship to be viewed online, I can see that such initiatives have been valuable to many during the time of lockdown and relative social isolation. It has provided a way for people to continue to engage at some level with corporate and liturgical worship. My concern is with the acceptance of online worship as normative. The present Archbishop of York has been speaking recently of the Church of England as a 'mixed ecology' church. This rather odd-sounding phrase appears to mean that online worship is here to stay as part of the mainstream of the Church of England's liturgical worship, to be engaged in alongside and equally normatively with traditional in-person, or embodied, worship. Indeed, the communications team of the Church of England now quite naturally speaks of worship being 'online or onsite', and in that order. There is, in my view, a significant downside to and a danger in this mentality. I was speaking with a colleague recently who told me that one of her parishioners told her that she preferred Zoom worship to having to go to the church because she could watch it on the settee in her pyjamas with a cup of coffee. My colleague was perfectly relaxed about this, whilst I will admit to being horrified. It seems that there is a very real danger of reducing worship and sacred acts to something more akin to entertainment, and turning participants into spectators - which is ironic, given that so much emphasis has been placed for decades (rightly) on encouraging greater lay-participation in the liturgy and other aspects of ecclesial life. This would appear to me to be part of a wider and by now, well-established cultural trend. It is a trend especially noticeable in the field of sport. There are more people than ever with subscriptions to Sky Sports and BT Sport and yet fewer people than ever actually participating in sport. My own main sport is cricket, and I can think of several clubs which no longer exist, several clubs with fewer teams than in the past and other clubs fearful for the future, often citing a lack of interest among the young. My local rugby union club, which fifteen years ago fielded three teams every Saturday, folded altogether a couple of years or so ago because it could no longer find enough players even for one team. When did anyone last see a group of children or teenagers having an impromptu (as opposed to official) game of football or cricket on a school field, in a park or in the street? Yet, prior to the pandemic, many pubs were thronging with people clustered around a big TV screen watching several Premier League football games every weekend. The language used by those in the churches providing online worship shows the extent to which they have travelled down this road already and is troubling. My own diocese provides online worship at least every Sunday (and on other occasions) and tells us that we can 'watch it later if you prefer'; as we might say when commending a TV programme to someone before mentioning i-Player. I have flagged this up politely on several occasions, but I can never elicit a response. For me, what emerges from all this is a theological issue which needs serious reflection. It is to do with the orientation of worship. A traditional understanding would be that worship is something offered by people, by the Church and by individuals, to God. Much of the language we now hear suggests that worship is offered by the person or group of people 'putting it on' for other people; instead of defining the activity of worship 'vertically', we are now defining it 'horizontally'. I am not saying that an online act of worship cannot be oriented in a godly way; rather, that the language used usually suggests otherwise, and that this cannot but affect the way in which people conceive of worship. It is similar to the impression given on some church noticeboards when, after listing all the various acts and times of worship, it says 'something for everyone' - which I have seen more than once. We are commodifying worship, and no-one seems to be taking any notice of what is going on. I have to say that if the churches think they can compete realistically in an entertainment marketplace, they are going to have a rude shock, sooner rather than later. When Archbishop Sentamu was enthroned in York Minster at the beginning of his archiepiscopal ministry in 2005, he drew a distinction between what he called 'consumers of religion' and 'disciples of Christ'. Those in authority in the churches may like to consider that many (most?) of these consumers/watchers of the product on offer, and who are usually referred to, patronisingly, as a 'new fringe' will not be contributing to the coffers. One final point: it is unarguable that one of the clearest trends of the last couple of decades is the increasing isolation of many people, and a similar trend towards individualism. The churches have been a key antidote to these trends for some, especially older, people. Encouraging more people to spend more time in front of computer and other screens is likely to exacerbate any feelings of isolation. It is time for the leadership of the churches to actively encourage people back to corporate worship as a shared enterprise, along with other aspects of church life which help to build up our local communities and afford many opportunities to share quality time with those we may otherwise never even meet. So where does that leave us? Where do we go from here? As the saying goes, we are where we are! The period from Ascension to Pentecost has for some years been dedicated as a time of prayer, with the strapline ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Elsewhere you will see access to the prayer resources. This is our responsibility – to worship and to pray. Jesus calls us to worship, to celebrate the mass, to ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ As we hear in our Gospel, he sends us out into the world, to be his presence in the world. Somehow, and only with God’s help will it be done, we must come back from where we find ourselves to be. God has a plan! Our task, communal and individual is to:

  • Commit ourselves to do his work

  • Pray earnestly for his Spirit

  • Commit ourselves anew to being at worship

Will you? With love and prayers, Fr Andrew


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