Brave new Church?

Anthony Towey

There are reasons to be hopeful as a new year dawns. Like London buses, a series of vaccines have suddenly appeared ready for deployment against the curse of a global pandemic that has paralysed our liturgical and pastoral practice alike. Desultory funerals and minimalistic wedding feasts may soon be a thing of the past as restrictions are lifted and the faithful are allowed to express their sorrows and joys. Sacramental celebrations of Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion and Ordination can now be planned by parishes and dioceses no longer fettered by the constraints of either legislation or legitimate fears. 2020 was awful – bring on 2021!
For most people, one feature of the return to normality will be that life will take on a more physical, a literally more sensible dimension. The possibility of meeting one another, enjoying a meal or visit and of communicating in ways other than Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter etc. will surely be healthy. Even the workplace may become less dominated by the strange depersonalisation occasioned by Zoom meetings.

Yet there is no guarantee that there will be a return to normality. Both priests and people are right to be anxious about the brave new world emerging from this global lockdown, since this long sabbatical from sacramental life is unprecedented. Moreover, we have ostensibly been saved not by the white-robed heroes of prayer but by the white-robed priests of science, a perception that may well lead some of our citizens to become vaccinated in body but inoculated in soul.

So, will habits of practice have changed for ever and the combination of facilitation and convenience of online religion become more characteristic of Catholic allegiance than eucharistic gathering on Sunday? Alas too late perhaps, the Churches have realised the precedent set in these times when the Government has permitted sporting events to continue with all rules and regulations respected but have decoupled the communal essence of liturgy voiced by Dominus vobiscum. S/he who sings may ‘pray twice’ but not until Boris Johnson says so!

There must be a risk that religious worship mediated through the portal of television simply takes its place among the roster of entertainment possibilities on offer in an environment where the competition is fierce. Alongside reality shows (sic) and the round of soap operas, the social commentator Terry Eagleton has for some time noted the ways in which sport, and football in particular, is beginning to dominate notions of allegiance and identity, a psychological space once occupied by politics and religion:

[It] stands in for all those noble causes – religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honour, ethnic identity – for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. Sport involves tribal loyalties and rivalries, symbolic rituals, fabulous legends, iconic heroes, epic battles, aesthetic beauty, physical fulfilment, intellectual satisfaction, sublime spectaculars, and a profound sense of belonging.1

There is a task at hand here and not just in Britain. As well as fostering the inspired initiatives which have flourished in these strange times, the markers of Catholic identity, the signs of allegiance, the expressions of deep solidarity which have been interrupted by secular interdict must be infused with new energy. ‘Normality’ probably won’t be good enough now; we must accept that some fellow sojourners will have gone for ever and the Church must be as brave as Gideon in confronting its mission with fewer companions at arms. Like the pruning of a vine, our prayer must be this crisis will lend more vigour to growth, a new appreciation of the Eucharist, more power in the holy assembly and deeper consolation among the faithful. In short, a prayer that we might live out our deepest identity more fully, as beloved children of the Father, who together in the Spirit, become the Body of Christ.

1 Eagleton, T., The Meaning of Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 26.