ANY Christians, including many clergy, myself included, have been caught napping by the global coronavirus pandemic. Content to see it as a matter of concern, but not urgency, perhaps something to pray about, the ecclesial rug was literally pulled from under our feet sometime mid-Lent when the world locked down. No Easter this year, all services cancelled or at best recorded and livestreamed.
Crisis! For many of us clergy it has been an ‘ecstasy of fumbling’, not – echoing the poet Wilfred Owen – of adjusting face masks, but the scrabble to teach ourselves the esoteric arts of creating social media platforms for communicating with our congregations locked away.
Beyond that, many faced having to close church buildings, coordinate social outreach projects by email or skype, even doing pastoral counselling by Zoom.
Crisis! How does the local church, the average parish, survive as an entity during this time till the end of lockdown? Let’s be practical: it’s a small business. Like many small businesses, some may go bankrupt. This is not pandering to cynics who see religion as a racket (though it can be), nor caving in to the stereotype of the priest on the make (though, sadly, we sometimes live up to it!). Realistically, every parish incurs running expenses, has paid staff (including the pastor or pastors), and usually runs a range of projects – from adult education to soup kitchens – that cost money. In many cases too, the parish supports parishioners, broadly defined, who are themselves in need.
Crisis! Above all, how does a church continue to function without its central focus: a community of believers? The folks who, week in and week out, come to the services, listen to the preaching, participate in the many rites and rituals of worship. How many clergy, I wonder, are not slightly afraid that after the lockdown we may not see many of our parishioners again?
This is particularly worrying if we look at wider trends that have emerged in the last 50 or so years in the Christian church. Across denominations, we have seen a decline in active church memberships, including in some churches, here I think specifically of the Catholic Church, a growing number of folk actively leaving. Many of them are young people.
We are often quick to blame those who leave: lack of faith, indifference to morality, desire to worship in a style more lively, which we sometimes sneer is ‘entertainment!’, than we offer. That’s how we try to justify ourselves, instead of asking the more pointed questions about whether what we preach and teach and how we worship actually speaks to the needs and questions of people in a language or style that resonates their experience. We sometimes even hold on to old forms of worship in language that seems to be deliberately archaic, as if to dare the rest to quit too.
Crisis. The Greek word (krisis) has a double meaning. The first, the common one, is an emergency or challenge that might even be a game changer. The other meaning is opportunity.
Ministry, of all believers to each other, during this lockdown continues to be both a challenge and an opportunity for the church. Apart from the obvious ones, like literally trying to worship communally apart, we are challenged to imagine new ways of doing things. For churches like mine, that focus on the Sunday Eucharist, we are at a disadvantage. Even churches that focus on the Word only and preaching are challenged. In both cases it’s the presence of the community, interaction and physical contact that is missing no matter how good the live-streamed sermons or masses.
Clearly, during this crisis we need to experiment. But our very theology and church discipline obstructs our practice and – in many cases – our thinking. Most religious organisations are terrified of theologians who think outside the box. Even if, as now, the box is clearly broken.
These are new times. Once debate in the church raged over such matters as how one reads sacred scriptures, treats persons of non-heteronormative sexualities, or indeed whether ordained ministry was the preserve of married or in some cases unmarried men. Now the question is one of survival.
The church as a whole – not just the pastors and administrators, and not just specialist theologians – needs to get into conversation and reflection on where we go next, how we get through this crisis and find ways to renew our institutions.
My sense is that across all Christian traditions, the old paradigms of being the church are slowly dying. Here and there we have seen new paradigms struggling to be born. Things have already been changing in the churches before the world went into Covid-19 lockdown. Lockdown will merely speed up the breakdown, heighten the tensions and highlight which churches will have the skill and imagination to adapt.
— Fr Anthony Egan SJ/the Jesuit Institute South Africa, Johannesburg. He is an historian and ethicist by training. His most recent publication was an examination of evolution, ecology and Christian faith.