Church on the line

Anthony Towey

Covid-19 is a global plague inflicting suffering and death on staggering numbers of victims and their families. It is difficult to say at this stage how far the pathologies of the virus will spread, but there is no doubt that the direct and indirect consequences of this disease will haunt humanity for some time to come. Talk of the benevolence or judgement of God has the harping tone of theological indulgence and even mockery as medical personnel risk their lives to save those of others. Like Job’s comforters, it is probably wiser for most of us to remain silent, to abide with the broken before rationalising tragedy.

At one step removed, lockdown has affected individuals, groups and organisations very differently, none more than the Church which is facing questions relating to its identity, its locus, its sacramentality. Preferred motifs such as the ‘Body of Christ’ and ‘People of God’ are not theologically vitiated by current circumstances, but practical realities mean that their symbolic import is taking a battering. Can you have a sense of being part of the Body of Christ without gathering for Eucharist, or of being the People of God through the portal of a computer? To paraphrase Captain Kirk, ‘it is Church, but not as we know it’ and the threats posed to parish affiliation and the when where and what of Catholic life are obvious.

I recall being perplexed at university that friends in the Christian Union, like honey bees, sought out the most engaging Sunday worship, regardless of their denominational affiliation. Yet as soon as two weeks into lockdown, members of a ‘WhatsApp’ group I belong to were excitedly reporting where they had been to Mass that day – Rome, Chicago, Limerick, Westminster and Staines were among the places virtually visited. The ‘problem’ is that only two of the above could be considered a ‘home’ parish. The old Catholic adage ‘I go for the singer not the song’ is perceptibly menaced in a technological diaspora where ‘where’ is everywhere.

Maybe even more problematically, ‘when’ is also becoming an irrelevant category. Catholic Sunday observance in the UK never recovered from the twin blows of episcopal authorisation of Vigil Masses on Saturday, and political de-regulation of the Sabbath trading laws. Sunday lost its sacred status. The day when you had to go to Mass became optional and Sunday evening Masses disappeared along with the men and youths that frequented them. Yet further unweaving of the threads connecting anamnesis, sacred time and sacramentality is precisely what is happening as participants choose exactly when it is convenient to attend, to pause and to even rewind parts of what is in theory a communal celebration taking place in a kairos moment – an appointed, grace filled time.

Now, arguably the challenges presented by this pestilence merely refine rather than threaten our understanding of what we mean by unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Piety may change and non-eucharistic liturgy may flourish. To use one example, Night Prayer in our parish is attracting 500 participants, even if some are clearly ‘attending’ the next day before breakfast. Yet the fragmentation of choice is happening at a time when the faithful are already wrestling with a popular conception that we have two popes and a small but noisy sedevacantist minority who claim we don’t even have one.

In short, the unusual times considered by this edition of the Pastoral Review are likely to leave their mark. Accelerated by Covid-19, the internet is perhaps inaugurating a third age of Church comparable to the metamorphoses occasioned by the mission to the Gentiles and the invention of the printing press. Like Eliot’s returning Magi ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’, it remains to be seen whether this means the future of the Church is online or on the line.