The people of God looked at the smoke of the burning city and wondered if they would ever see it again. (From Exile and Return, a Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman)
This time of the coronavirus feels similar to the people of God’s experience of going into exile in Babylon. Our daily lives have changed dramatically in little over a week and the rate of change shows no sign of slowing. This must have been true for the people of Jerusalem as well – one moment they were living their usual lives and the next they had been captured and marched off to exile in Babylon. Not all of them made it; not all of us will make it either.
These times of exile have an impact on all aspects of our lives, and this includes our spiritual life. The people of God had grown into the belief that somehow worship needed to take place in the temple in Jerusalem. This was the place where they came close to God. The exile began for them as a time of lament “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” As time went on, they discovered that worshiping God was possible in Babylon too.
Spiritually it can feel like that for us as well. Our churches have closed, both for public and private prayer. The laity are unable to share in communion. Our worshiping communities have been dispersed. We have been told to stay at home and many of the voluntary activities that we did to serve our communities have stopped.
But there is I think, a key difference. Going to Babylon, the people and the priests shared the same experience of exile from Jerusalem, the temple and all it meant to them.
For us it is different. Although the priests are still able to receive communion this is no longer possible for the laity.
For those who find that they come closest to God during the Eucharist, this can be devastating. During these difficult times the last thing they want is to feel cut off from God. There have been several questions on social media along the lines of would it be all right to have my own bread and wine at home and is it possible to consecrate the elements over the internet?
As far as I can make out the church’s answer to both of these is no. There is some discussion of spiritual communion and how priests can take communion on behalf of all of us.
Theologically and rationally this may be true.
But it doesn’t feel like it emotionally.
We, the laity, may in time be able to appreciate this position but we aren’t there yet. We can’t be. It is too soon and until a few days ago most of us did not know that the idea of spiritual communion existed. Many of us still don’t. In recent years the church has stressed the centrality of communion in the Christian life. If, for a time, this can no longer be so, this puts us (and the church) on a journey similar to that of the people of God as they travelled into exile. Where will we find God during this time?
For priests, still able to receive communion, the questions may be different but just as difficult. What is communion like on your own, unable to share with the rest of the church? Is there some way in which it is fundamentally different? (I don’t know, I’m neither a priest nor a theologian so my questions are just guesswork. I’m sure their questions will be just as difficult though. None of us is being offered an easy way through this.)
Sacred space is another issue. For many laity the opportunity to go into a church, experience the peace, and spend time in prayer feels necessary to their faith.
At this time of writing the guidance seems unclear.* Many priests have been told that they too cannot go into church. However, government guidelines seem to indicate that online streamed services are allowed and some priests see no problem in entering a church for which they are the keyholder.
I think one of the difficulties is that priests are trying to direct the laity down roads that they themselves do not need to travel. They are doing this out of concern for their congregations and because they can see the need. But how do we, the laity, avoid thinking: “It’s all right for you.” How do priests avoid wondering if the road the laity take will be more exciting than their own or lead them away from the church rather than towards it?
I am, I think, one of the lucky ones. I will miss encountering God in receiving communion, in worshipping in church with my community and in the peace and silence of my local churches. But I do not feel bereft as I also encounter Him walking in the countryside (today there were skylarks!), through storytelling, symbol and prayer and all these are still available to me.
At some point in the future, the different roads we travel during these times will start to come together again. How will we show sensitivity towards each other’s experiences and how can we bring them together to enrich and renew the church?
The people of God returned from exile and began rebuilding the temple…
*Update: The guidance from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York tonight has clarified this issue: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own… …We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.”