The editor of the conservative American Christian journal First Things, Russell Reno, has in the past week been posting articles and stirring debate about what he sees as the capitulation of the churches to secularism in the closing of church buildings on Sundays and the cessation of mass worship. Reno lambasted the ‘docility’ of clergy and our Western hysterical fear of death, insisting that closing churches simply shows the ‘irrelevance of institutional Christianity’, but I wonder firstly if this is a particularly American outlook – that a thing doesn’t exist unless it is strongly publicly visible – and also if he is confusing the ‘institutional’ church with, simply, the church. His commentary may lead us to again wonder, what exactly is church?

Of course it is nonsense to suggest that the church has been silenced, just as it would be nonsense to suggest family ceases without face-to-face contact. (Although the internet is largely an ogre, thank God in this case for technology that allows us to continue some measure of connection.) As other churchleaders have pointed out, there is opportunity to show that church is more than an activity that occurs for an hour on Sundays. Our present crisis is an opportunity to show that church is people connected through Christ, no matter the physical difficulties we are presented with. 

In his recent book Dominion, about the profound influence of the church on Western society’s values, Tom Holland suggests that it was love of neighbour (not public worship) that defined Christianity in the classical world, a love that was universal, rather than the tribalism that can be reinforced by public worship. (This revolutionary belief, says Holland, perhaps stating the obvious, is seen in our society’s agreement that people are fundamentally equal, and that the unfortunate deserve our compassion, leading to the fact that we look in horror, not indifference, to the sufferings of others in the present crisis.)

Of course, the institutional church and church buildings are important, necessary places of communion and organisation. And it is therefore okay to mourn, as Reno does, the lack of public gathering, and it is even okay to miss the ritual, the worship, the time out from the regular week, all things we human beings require. To remove all this, and the physical proximity of our church family, is hardship. And enforced isolation makes being Christ to others difficult, prompting a lot of head-scratching at my church about how exactly we do this. But to comply with authorities for the sake of the vulnerable is not simply capitulation. 

It is certainly weird. On Sunday past, our church streamed the service from an almost-empty church; my wife and son and I lit a candle, sat on the couch and watched the laptop on the coffee table. And I had the thought: many of us have seen those maps of virus hotspots, with bigger red dots meaning centres of stronger infections; we could also conceivably draw up a map of the country with little pinpricks of light indicating those who are online and worshipping in novel ways – faint maybe, but lights still shining in the darkness.

Nick Mattiske

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