The language of exile has been around quite a lot recently as people have begun to reflect on the experience of these locked down times. Sometimes it’s been used in reference to Christians being unable to gather in, or even enter their churches. That is a real and deep loss, and was especially so in Holy Week and on Easter Day – but I don’t think it’s all that’s going on. Exile is a powerful word. I don’t think many would reach for it to explain how they feel if there wasn’t something profound going on. Behind the regret about the closure of church buildings lies a deeper sense of loss, and a fear that it will be longer-lasting, and more profound than even months of locked doors. The power and tragedy of exile is not knowing when or whether you will ever get back home.
Bishop Peter Selby has expressed that deeper and more profound sense of loss in a recent article in The Tablet – ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’ The Church of England is of course a limit case of this sense of privation, as the archbishops, after conversation with the diocesan bishops, have written to the clergy directing them not to go into their churches – and have followed suit by not using their own private chapels in their own residences. Bishop Peter sees this as a sign of a church losing its sense of its vocation and role in society:
That removal of Holy Week and Easter to the domestic realm reflects, without any element of challenge, faith becoming a private matter and our public life belonging to be the realm of practical secularity.
The CofE bishops will surely 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.
I am not here waving a flag for the current policy of the Church of England. I do though want to take a different direction in trying to discern what is going on in the current situation, I hope taking as seriously as he does the issues Bishop Peter raises.
It is certainly true that for many there is a sense of radical displacement, of exile, in being excluded from the church building. What I believe we need to question is the nature of that grieving – and this is a hard thing to do in the midst of it. But if we do not take up that challenge now, there is a danger that we do not discern what God may be saying to us. Because it may be that in feeling so much at home in our churches, we may have forgotten that we are always in exile. Walter Brueggemann claims that
… we may take the exile as metaphor for the characteristic “human predicament” in biblical mode, a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance, and a bewilderment about how to be fully human now. And if we take exile as characteristic context, then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile. The characteristic task and opportunity of the preacher are to asert, yet again, that the matrix of human homelessness is the very arena of divine presence whereby homelessness is made home-filled.
The Word Militant – preaching a decentring word
Brueggemann reminds us that there should always be something of exile in the Christian experience of this world. And that is the question with which we need to wrestle – whether we are perhaps too much at home in the ecclesiastical life we have lived up to this time? One of the other critics of the present restrictions points out, rightly, that
There is an iconic significance also to church buildings, for sacred architecture, too, seeks to express eschatological realities, a representation in brick and stone of the heavenly Jerusalem.
But it is also true that what should be an icon can become an idol. The prophetic establishment in the time of Jeremiah believed that Jerusalem was secure from invaders because of the presence of the temple within the city. It was Jeremiah’s task to tell them that the city would fall, that they would go into exile. The estrangement from God which had already happened within the people would be worked out in space and time.
“Let us then go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). It is only by beginning with our fundamental homelessness that we are open to being brought home to God, by God. Only by recognising that we are exiles can we hear the good news of God’s salvation. Before we hasten to put everything back in its proper place and resume business as usual, whenever that may be possible, we also must ask whether that very desire does not also betray a dangerous comfort with what is – rather than a focus forward to the city that is to come. The heavenly Jerusalem is not here on earth; if our churches try to take its place then they will prevent rather than enable our worship.
This in no way entails an abandonment of the public life of our society, the privatisation of religion to which Bishop Peter is rightly opposed. Ironically, Christian religious practice has during the last few weeks become far more visible in one of the most significant public spaces of our age, the realm of digital communications. Streamed from dining rooms and kitchens and improvised domestic chapels, with varying degrees of technical competence, it is far easier to participate – at a certain level – than it ever has been. This is not solely a substitute reality. The digital world is part of the real world, because it is part of the living experience of many – and for increasingly many it has always been that way. If churches now retreat from that world again, it will be a significant failure to learn the lessons of this crisis – just as much of a failure as it would be if we forgot those who are not at home in the digital world.
But though the digital world is important, it is partial – only available to some, and not the whole of human relationship for any. And it is therefore not an answer to the core of the critique. Both the public, and still more the embodied nature of Christian discipleship and worship demand far more than a good internet presence.
Bishop Peter’s key claim is 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 … [and that] … the work is essential and the workers are key, not just for those who happen to opt in but as signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation.
While agreeing with much that he says, I am not comfortable with the idea that the ‘essential public function’ of the clergy is ‘rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches’. It is rooted in the celebration of the liturgy, in prayer and teaching and acts of service – in the many things that those in ordained ministry are called to model for the church and show to the world. For those called to parish ministry, it is rooted in a particular place and a particular community. But though that function may be appropriately and beautifully exercised in a church, I don’t think it is rooted there.
Church buildings have been for centuries the signs of the presence of the church – and hopefully therefore also the presence of God, particularly in countries with a tradition of institutionally approved churches. Are they now? The answers will be various, in the widely varying contexts of our country and our world, but I don’t believe we can continue to assume that they will be a general ‘yes’. The public service of the church to the world cannot I think be assumed to be seen, heard or understood in our society simply because it is manifested in worship conducted in a church building. The task of being ‘signs of hope and healing’ is a complex and creative one, with as many answers as there are contexts, and church buildings may often be part of it – but the question must be asked, not the answer assumed. We must at least consider the possibility that exclusion from church buildings might make us understand more deeply what it means to be a church in the public square, not merely a religious club. Maybe this is what it takes to make us see where the mission of God is in our communities and our country?
The church must be a public body – and it must be embodied. Digital space is a real dimension of the reality in which we now live, but it is not the whole. Disconnected from the realities of physical encounter, it can become a realm of fantasy or nightmare. The church remains committed to a sacramental life of water, bread and wine, of touch, of embrace. The body of Christ is constituted by the eucharist it shares. It has been interesting to observe that most members of local congregations appear to have continued to engage digitally with their local and habitual place of worship – regardless of the ‘production quality’. I suspect that the engagement through digital means may be much deeper because of the other dimensions, of already knowing, caring for and being cared for by, the figures appearing on a screen. But that embodied, sacramental life is not dependent on a building. It is the life of a people on the move: the sacrament is always a viaticum, the food for a journey.
We are always in exile; we are always at home in Christ. I have a suspicion that we have forgotten something of the former – and so have been much less completely the latter. This time of exclusion, which feels like an exile, may also be a time for moving on with God into a life as a church which holds on to both of those truths more completely. If we can do so while re-inhabiting our church buildings, well and good: but let them be formed to our calling as disciples, not be the template which forms that calling.
At the back of my mind in writing this has been a haunting memory of the prophetic voice of Ivan Illich, and particularly his essay, published in 1967, ‘The Vanishing Clergyman’ (sic – Illich was deeply radical in very many ways, but male gender was still assumed). Illich had a vison in which:
The ‘diaconia’ will supplant the parish as the fundamental institutional unit of the church. The periodic meeting of friends will replace the Sunday assembly of strangers … The minister will be a man mature in Christian wisdom through his lifelong participation in an intimate liturgy, rather than a seminary graduate formed professionally through ‘theological’ formulae.
I foresee the face-to-face meeting of families around a table, rather than the impersonal attendance of a crowd around an altar. Celebration will sanctify the dining room, rather than consecrated buildings the ceremony.
Celebration of Awareness
I am not proposing this as an organisational plan for the Church of England, or any other church. It is I think a prophetic provocation – I hope it may startle us into thought.
The title of this piece is taken from the Salve Regina, a medieval hymn to Mary. The whole sentence is
Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us; and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
After this experience, of dislocation, exile, distancing, my hope is that we will be led closer to Christ through listening at depth to what we may find it hard to hear.