Fr Ben Rabjohns looks at the Church of England from across the border and asks whether our response was too centralised, too uniform, and too keen to appear positive to the exclusion of a sense of loss or sorrow.
In the social media world, there is a desperate pressure to say something in every situation. In this world, where what we can say is limited by the number of characters on Twitter, or by the likelihood of anyone bothering to expand the message and read the whole thing on Facebook, what we have to say so often seems to have to be definite, without nuance, and – certainly from professionals in the field – positive. Social media does not seem to be a place where lament is at home. There is pressure, especially for organisations which have a centralised element to them, to have ‘a message’ to get across.
Looking from the outside at the way in which the Church of England has dealt with the current time of crisis, it seems to me that a possible cause of the problems which have arisen was this need to deliver a unified and simple message. I feel that it is important to say here that this comes simply from someone who has casually observed what has been happening, with interest – but also with the usual limitations of Twitter feeds and Facebook friends. Inevitably I will not have seen the full story and it will have been filtered by those whom I choose to ‘follow’ or be Facebook friends with.
I also want to say that the central public health message delivered by the government, of the need to remain at home and help to protect the NHS and save lives, was obviously essential. This was something which needed to be shared and adhered to for the public good – and it was good for the Church to play a part in getting this message across. The strange thing was the way in which the Church of England struggled to find another message to share.
The initial reaction on social media was a desire to get across the message that although church buildings were closed, the Church was still ‘open’. One could see the point of this – we constantly have to try and convince the faithful that they are the Church, and not to be attached to a building in an unhealthy way. However, this relentlessly positive message seemed to miss something of the sadness of what was happening as church buildings closed their doors and public acts of worship ceased.
Obviously the Church was still alive – people still prayed, worship continued behind closed doors, acts of service probably increased – but something essential was, none the less, missing. Ordinary Christians here, and I’m sure in the Church of England, longed for the doors to re-open and to be able once again to come together as the Body of Christ to worship.
At the same time, the initial message from the Church of England regarding the closure of buildings and the cessation of worship was ambiguous – in some places worship was allowed to continue behind closed doors and with a few of the faithful present. Here in Wales the message was clear that public worship should cease altogether. This was, of course, painful (which of us who are priests would not want to gather the faithful for worship if at all possible?) but its clarity was helpful. I am immensely thankful to have had such a momentous, difficult, and painful decision made for me.
Perhaps it was this initial ambiguity which led to a firm reaction in the other direction – where church buildings became closed even to clergy to pray on their own or live-stream worship for others to participate in, and to the strange message that even those clergy with a connecting door to their churches or who were able to enter their church without walking through any public land were not allowed to enter them. This, then, became part of the ‘message’ which came centrally from the Church of England – the Church is open, but church buildings are very firmly closed – and led to the strangeness of the Archbishop of Canterbury leading worship from his kitchen, even though the chapel of Lambeth Palace is within his home. Church buildings being closed to everyone began to be advertised as a virtue rather than a necessity – with the ‘death by door handle’ scenario, mentioned elsewhere in this blog, as a bizarre example of this.
What has been different in the Church in Wales? First, there has been decisiveness in decision-making and clarity in the message which has been received. That public worship was to cease and church buildings were to be closed was the unambiguous instruction. The decision of the bishops to go beyond the government instructions in extending this to funerals being conducted in church was also useful (though painful) – I certainly would not have wanted the difficult job of crematorium staff in policing the number of people attending a funeral service.
Secondly, in this diocese at least, clergy have been allowed to use their discretion when it comes to using their church buildings for prayer and the live-streaming of worship. As someone who lives adjacent to the church, I have continued to pray the Offices in church each day and to celebrate the Mass which people have been able to join via Zoom. I have also been able to make a special effort to ring the bell for the Angelus – enabling members of the congregation in a small community to join in from their homes as they hear the bell, but also to tell others that this means that the Church is uniting in prayer at those moments of the day. The faithful have found huge encouragement and comfort in being able to see the liturgy celebrated in the church which they love – especially the Easter liturgies. There was also the opportunity for the family of one of the congregation to see a requiem celebrated in church on the day of their loved-one’s funeral, even though their funeral itself was not able to be held there.
It has been good to see the mixture of ways in which different clergy have responded – some live-streaming each day from their churches as I do, some simply visiting the church to celebrate Mass on their own, others offering worship sometimes from their churches and on other occasions from their homes, some exclusively from their homes. Some have felt able to continue to celebrate the Eucharist; others have made the decision not to. The ability to use discretion has been helpful in that it has allowed each person to respond to difficult and (to use a much over-used word) unprecedented times in the best way they are able. Allowing an individual and local response seems to have avoided some of the debates which have flared up in the Church of England about the ‘right’ way of continuing the life of the Church in these times. I have been encouraged to see others trying, as I have tried, to do the best that they can where they are – acknowledging that this is not some new and exciting way of being, but simply a time which we need to get through.
Of course, that is not to say that there have been no exciting discoveries from this time or that there are no lessons to learn and to carry forward. There have been unexpected joys along the way – such as the first Sunday morning gathering on Zoom which, after a few days of feeling devastated by the thought of being unable to gather for worship, gave a real sense of fellowship and love as, with all the weirdness of it, we chatted and joked after Mass. One person who has joined in with a regular live-stream of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and Morning Prayer has been away from Church life for a long time and commented that this time of prayer has been helpful to them. There must surely be ways we can learn from this time to keep the housebound more in touch with the worshipping life of the Church, and ways we must continue to use an online presence to reach out with the Good News. But there has also been much that has been lost and missed – and much sadness at that loss.
Which brings me to a third difference. I have often looked with envy at the Church of England’s social media presence and communications capacity: things like the ‘Follow the Star’ campaign simply cannot be replicated in the Church in Wales with a much smaller-scale operation. However, I think that, to return to the beginning of this article, the need for a centralised, positive message has been a particular problem here. The strangeness and sadness – as well as the unexpected joys and opportunities – of a time such as this are just impossible to convey as part of a modern communications strategy.
The Church has obviously been alive – and perhaps sometimes alive in new and exciting ways – but also diminished and sad. A sense of that just cannot be condensed into a Tweet or a press release. I have no idea whether the Church in Wales has made a deliberate decision not to try and speak centrally too much about all this – but, to me, the quietness seems to have been the wiser choice.
In this diocese, the communications department have focussed less on putting across a central message and more on sharing stories of what is actually happening in churches and parishes, and on supporting us to be better at engaging online and using different tools in these strange times. This is something for which I, and others, have been immensely grateful.
Importantly, though, this way of doing things also acknowledges the fact that it is by engaging with local churches that most people encounter the Church. Hopefully, across the Church in Wales and the Church of England, people will have seen the local church, like them, finding its way through challenging times, experiencing sadness and loss, sometimes not quite knowing what to do – but also alive, praying, discovering new things along the way and seeking to serve as best as possible. For me, perhaps the most significant difference is that the Church in Wales has, knowingly or not, trusted that to be the message.
The Rev’d Ben Rabjohns
Priest-in-Charge of Penrhiwceiber (St Winifred), Matthewstown and Ynysboeth