Is the Church non-essential? (the answer might surprise you!)

24 April 2020

Andrea Williams comments on why the Church must be seen as an essential service.

We are currently witnessing a revival across the UK. Millions of people are gathering around the country for their weekly act of obeisance.

Sadly, it’s not in churches – or in virtual church services.

We put rainbows up in our windows, step outside on Thursdays at 8pm and honour key workers who are providing ‘essential services’ during this coronavirus pandemic.

It’s no bad thing. I join in myself. It’s a good and harmless way to show honour to those who are doing good work at greater risk to themselves. It’s also a remarkable opportunity to build friendships with neighbours over balconies, hedges and fences. What a gift for building God’s kingdom!

But it makes me reflect on how the Church, how ministers of the gospel have become seen as optional extras rather than critical leaders in these remarkable times.

It’s not just that government guidance fails to recognise the key spiritual life that true Christian faith brings. It would indeed be a joy to see our political leaders and government machinery recognise the need for spiritual awakening and reformation, for repentance and faith. But it’s no great surprise when the state, which has effectively been run on atheistic, secular principles for decades, fails to see its need to ‘kiss the Son’.

What’s far more devastating to me is the Church’s widespread willingness – even eagerness – to accept this ‘non-essential’ designation.

I get it. For a short period, loving our neighbours has meant playing our part in slowing the virus’ spread. But church leaders have gone beyond what government guidance (and law) demands, or what scientists advise.

In the Church of England, for example, voluntary chaplains have been forbidden for ministering to the sick and dying in hospitals, even though many hospitals are requesting volunteer services and offering personal protective equipment. The Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has made it clear that funerals can take place within churches but the Church of England is not allowing it.

Christians know that Church is a people, not merely a place. But church buildings exist for a reason. They facilitate our corporate gatherings – making it possible for tens, hundreds or thousands of people listen to God and worship God together. The aesthetics and acoustics of any church building, from an ornate cathedral to a simple gospel hall are intended to serve those aims. Many of these buildings perform secondary roles as spaces for communities from toddler groups to homeless shelters.

Shutting them down, stopping meeting physically and taking extreme precautions does come at a real cost. Virtual church can still be uplifting but it is not the same.

Couldn’t our church leaders have pushed for more recognition that this is a real sacrifice? Could they have pressed the need for repentance and faith at this time of crisis? Could they have insisted on more (and better) opportunities for Christian broadcasts on TV and radio, knowing that many older people who struggle with internet technology need access to faithful preaching, prayer and worship? Could they have found a way to make church buildings safe and accessible for private prayer or some large outdoor spaces available for socially-distanced open air preaching and worship?

Maybe in some cases the wiser option is to hold back on some of this. But the lack of advocacy from nearly all church leaders on most of these points. As and when easing the lockdown becomes possible, we must strongly make the case for these activities to be made possible at the earliest opportunity.

But the Church so far has too often responded with the ‘club’ mentality. We’ve implicitly admitted that what we do on Sundays and in our church communities is an option, a choice. Church is a club for religious people; the spiritual equivalent of crochet groups for crafty people.

No, our gathered worship is at the very centre of our lives. The design for human life has been the same ever since our time in Eden. Six days a week we are fruitful and multiply, filling and subduing the Earth, building culture – until we gather together as God’s people to bring him our offerings, seek and find forgiveness and be sent out once again to love and serve the Lord, in the name of Christ.

Although it has been necessary to interrupt this pattern for a time, we must recover our sense of how essential our every-week church services are. The world depends on it.

Absent from nearly all the musings of our Church’s leadership is any such clarity and foresight. We claim to believe in the good news of the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus but the biggest spiritual lesson we take from the pandemic is that we shouldn’t work as hard and should appreciate key workers more.

Whether true or not, did anyone need a bishop to tell them that? We hear this from dawn until dusk as it is. It’s the Church of Mirrors. Reflecting our society’s values directly back and asking them to like us.

But as much as we might use mirrors to help us look better, no amount of lipstick or beard oil can change who we really are. The well-groomed person in the mirror is ultimately the same person who woke up with bed hair and baggy eyes.

Society needs more than a mirror. It needs a window. You might see your reflection in a window. But you’ll see through the reflection into another reality.

Society needs to see the bigger reality. That God is in Heaven, that he made and owns all things. That he is saving people from the wages of their sin, death. That he calls them to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, who will return to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new.

Is the Church non-essential?

We’re acting as if it is.

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