The Bishop of Ely reflects on digital worship, lockdown, canon law and the approaching Advent season.
I recently preached at a service of the word led by lay ministers on Zoom. The design of the liturgy was exemplary, as was the choice of pre-recorded hymns. The intercessions were beautifully composed and illustrated by well-chosen photographs of people and landscapes. At their heart was the current crisis and tragedy of the pandemic. It was inspiring for me, having spent my fourteen years as a bishop in two largely rural dioceses. During this time, I have been promoting good quality non-eucharistic worship which lay people can lead and deliver ably to the glory of God. On this particular Sunday, worshippers were brought together in one united service from the eight parishes of this multi-parish benefice. They manifestly enjoyed being together in worship and fellowship. It was great that one of those attending is a farmer who was on audio while she saw to her cows and shared the hymns with them.
I was struck by the rich connectivity of the whole experience for me. Having warmly greeted one another as we arrived at the zoom space, we were gently led into the presence of God in reverence and praise. There was nothing chatty about the service, making it about us; yet the assembly was brought together as the Body of Christ. Although I find most of my time on Zoom tiring and frustrating, to be honest, I am thankful to God for the remarkable and imaginative efforts of our clergy and ministry teams to learn skills they have not had before in order to feed God’s people from the Word of God and to enable the faithful to make their spiritual communion.
Yes, you can feel the ‘but’ coming. Ours is an incarnational faith. Even when it was not possible to celebrate the Eucharist in church, churches were still open as food hubs. At least one parish in Cambridge has allocated a piece of vacant land to be a vegetable garden to serve the foodbank. This faith we share is physical and material as well as ineffable and mysterious. The first lockdown was described somewhere as being an extended Holy Saturday. For me, it always had the character of Advent, waiting afresh for the coming of God under the form of bread and wine, in water and holy oil to baptise and anoint. We cherish the points of connection made on social platforms, but as we live the consequences of natural and man-made disaster, we are invited to renew our commitment to longing and waiting for the proper resumption of safe human interaction under God’s gaze and in God’s grace. This is our ongoing living of Advent.
The American economist, J. K. Galbraith, spoke about ‘the politics of contentment’ created by there being so much living space for the well-to-do, it was possible never to connect with the economic, social or health care needs of poor people and people of colour. It’s like a number of countries sharing the same boundaries. One could apply this to North and South here. This creates an ease of objectification of individuals and whole communities. As an episcosaurus, I no doubt undervalue the technology that I rely on; but I observe that the internet which can be so splendid also divides us with fake news and hate crime and has the power to atomise human communion.
In his novel Howard’s End, E. M. Forster speaks through his main character to say, ‘Only connect’. It has two meanings, first to resolve conflicts within each person and second, and more importantly, to build personal relationships. Forster was suspicious of the idea that technological advances are always good. I remember being terrified as a youth by his short story, The Machine Stops. Patterns of digital communication are still developing. However, it was Forster’s view that the more people we know in number, the less close we might be to all. I trust that it does not apply in the case of bishops engaging with their clergy and people! However, as the late Bishop David Jenkins used to say, we may not be up to it, but God is down to it. God calls us into explicit eucharistic relationship. This cannot be replaced or reduced by a digital agape, consoling and bonding as that may be. Real presence only works in the physical reality of the very particular. That is the model by which we serve our parish communities. This is how Christ makes himself known and offers us the fruits of his sacrifice of love.
Connecting is vital to our human flourishing. Social distancing is essential for a fair time to come; but it is also heart-breaking. Part of the current crisis and world events also show us how human fracturing is growing. This is why we need the rule of law which can be developed by legitimate authority. This applies to the Church and its laws, too. I used to abhor the way that Roman Catholic seminarians were taught sacramental theology and ecclesiology through the matrix of canon law. Now I see its merits. My observation would be that teaching on the sacraments is generally woeful across the Church in whatever tradition. In other parts of the world it is no wonder that independent churches are not celebrating the Eucharist at all, and without any good reason which might be cited by Quakers or Salvationists. During these last months, only canon law has protected us from ordinations outside the Eucharist and still protects us from allowing our doctrine to be changed by the introduction of individual communion cups. Poor teaching about concomitance has done us real harm. Thankfully, it is canon law which has helped us to re-assert that the Person of Christ cannot be divided. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More eloquently reminds his hot-headed son-in-law that the reasonable laws of the land are like thickets which, if cut down, remove every obstacle when the devil decides to pursue us. Canon law is the sinew of the Church’s doctrine and ecclesiology which protects us and keep us whole. Sinews need to be flexed and exercised for our health and our unity. Only connect.
We are soon to resume public worship. My fellow worshippers on Zoom are looking forward to attending the Eucharist in person on 3rd December. We are missing so much and long for healing and a restoration of connection between family members and whole communities. Advent is a season of penitence and hope as we long for the coming of Christ as our Lord and Judge. We pray that Christ will be our heart again and take away the heavy stone of fear and isolation. There can be no greater connection than that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Right Rev’d Stephen Conway, Lord Bishop of Ely