Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4.6
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing. 1 Thessalonians 5.16-17
By my reckoning we are now into the fourteenth week of the ‘lockdown’ and gradually both the Holyrood and Westminster governments are easing the restrictions that have changed our lives so much since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Churches in Scotland have now been told that their buildings can be re-opened – but only at present for ‘private prayer’ and small-scale funerals (and weddings are allowed ‘outside’) in view of the continuing concern about physical ‘distancing’; and since then there has been much speculation when further guidance may be given , as applies in England now, reducing from 2 metres the distance people from different households must keep apart. So we do still do not know when churches will be open again for public worship.
Last month I was asked by a friend in the United States who edits the quarterly Journal for Preachers to write an article about prayer ‘in a time of crisis’. There could scarcely be a more topical subject, with not only the present pandemic, but Brexit hanging over us, the economic recession, the continuing climate emergency, and the recent anti-racism and Black Lives Matter protests. So I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer – what is it all about? what do our prayers tell us and reflect about our understanding and expectations of the mystery we call ‘God’, how God ‘works’? and so on – more of this anon perhaps.
But in the meantime the limitation of the re-opening of church buildings to the purpose of ‘private prayer’ prompts the question – what are church buildings for? The significance of the frequent celebration of the Mass within the Roman Catholic tradition led to formal representations for relaxation of the government’s restrictions, but the ‘private prayer’ concession may be regarded as little more than a symbolic gesture, perhaps betraying a misconception, if not ignorance, both about the nature of church life and about the practice of prayer.
This was evident also in the BBC’s Reporting Scotland piece which depicted, in a moment of intended drama (which didn’t quite work), the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow struggling to open the doors of St Andrew’s Cathedral, and then a trickle of individuals returning to engage in their private devotions. Perhaps this is a peculiarity of the Roman Catholic tradition, but surely, because of its essentially personal and individual nature, ‘private prayer’ is possible, indeed is widely practised, in places other than churches. While the importance is recognised of churches as ‘sanctuaries’ – which may offer stillness and solace when people need this, nonetheless in Scotland many, possibly most, places of worship tend to be closed for much of the week, and, if they are open then, it is primarily for social and communal use, rather than for worship and prayer. It is significant that meanwhile Scotland’s mosques, synagogues, Hindu and Sikh temples as well as most Church of Scotland buildings remain closed; and that, in the Reporting Scotland item, the shots from the Sikh Gurdwara in Berkeley Street and from St Cuthbert’s Church (Church of Scotland) in Edinburgh, focussed on the outreach and service that these are providing for the local community.
Church buildings are essentially for communal use – for coming together, for public worship, for a range of other congregational purposes – social events, group activities, business meetings, as a base for parish outreach and meeting-place for a range of community groups, and much more besides. While we have valued the connections and contacts that have been sustained and developed online this past while (and it is really important that the positive aspects of our lockdown experience – for example, through the use of Zoom and the ‘reach’ of the Wellington web-site, updated daily, and the online services – should not be forgotten or lost), we are looking forward to the time – not too far-off, we hope – when we shall be able to meet one another again and interact, not just virtually online but ‘for real’ face-to-face .
So we wait with hope. We are reassured that the recent Herald article by Rosemary Goring, with its alarmist suggestion that older and ‘vulnerable’ members of congregations will be discouraged and excluded from attending when buildings reopen for worship, has been formally and conclusively refuted by the Church of Scotland. And we look forward to the day, in the words of the late, much-loved Dame Vera Lynn, repeated by the Queen in her impressive address televised in April, when ‘we’ll meet again’.
Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger: all are welcome in this place.
(Marty Haugen – CH4 198)