WHILE NOT DARING to speak for prelates, I feel fairly confident in saying that the Covid-19 pandemic caught most parochial clergy off-guard, and monasteries too. Witness the mad scramble to make provision for a congregation not merely forbidden from attending Mass, but from even entering their churches. (This raises the question of the purpose of our church buildings and to whom, at least morally, they belong, and to what degree we are accountable to God for their use; but that is not for now.)
The move to restrict the liturgy was no doubt a justifiable one. But the move to shut the churches completely came not from the government but from at least some of our own bishops has left many people disturbed. The government had been prepared to exempt churches but it was the bishops’ conference that approached the government asking for churches to be closed. It remains to be shown how an empty church with no more than a handful of people in private prayer, able effortlessly to practise social distancing, is more dangerous than a supermarket.
So, many of us have found ways to stream our daily Mass to allow parishioners, not excluding others of course, some sort of access to the “source and summit” of the Christian life, and a type of access also to their church. Given the age profile of many parishes, this has been of limited benefit in practice, but better than nothing. Some have been able to spend money on the necessary equipment, while others have made do; I use an old phone with a decent camera propped up on a Lenten offering stand. We have had to learn how to arrange things so that everything is at hand and visible in one frame, as there is no one to move the camera during the Mass.
In many places the most practical way is to use a side altar. After some experiment on a steep learning curve I have moved to the lady chapel, wherein can be placed an ambo, paschal candle, the necessaries for the altar, and all within reach and within view of the fixed camera. An added benefit of a side altar or chapel is that its smaller scale allows for a greater sense of proximity to the action of the liturgy, a greater sense of being there, and largely eliminates the need for extra microphones.
For some it has been a challenge to see the Mass celebrated ad orientem. For many this is understandable as they may never have experienced Mass celebrated in this traditional way, and are not catechized to its meaning and rationale. For others, ideology begins to cloud the air: “back to the people” becomes the description, even from clergy of an age to have grown up with it and who should know what it means. Getting people to cut through the ideology to see what is going on can be a challenge but it may be worth it. The basic psychological coherence of the arrangement becomes apparent to many: when talking to the people, the priest faces the people; when talking to God as one of, and on behalf of, the people, he turns to face God, as it were. The East has always been the symbol of Son’s incarnation and his coming again in glory. From the start Christians faced east to pray and to worship.
One benefit of the lockdown-liturgy of Coronatide is that people might have the space to see the essential skeleton of the liturgy, and something of its organic continuity as the Church’s worship of God down the centuries. Our communion is multi-dimensional: it is across the globe here and now; it across the centuries both before now and to come; and it across the border between the natural and the supernatural, a communion with the Church of purgatory and of heaven. A congregation that cannot see beyond itself in the here and now is an impoverished congregation indeed.
Some hopes and fears have been expressed as to what the implications of Coronatide are for the Church in the future. Some express the hope that the wider audience reached by online Masses might entice them to come to the even in person after the raising of the lockdown. Others are more pessimistic, fearing that people take to online liturgy because of its ease and the few demands it makes—if one can watch it at home why bother going to church?
If that latter opinion proves prophetic, then we will have botched Coronatide. A virtual congregation is no substitute at all for the real thing. In time of emergency it is a port in the storm, for sure; and for the housebound online liturgy has been a great help, but already was before the lockdown. However, the congregation gathered in a church for the celebration of the liturgy is an act of the Church being the Church: a visible, tangible witness to—a sacrament of, if you will—the Body of Christ present, alive and active in the world. That is where the Christian’s place must always be unless some dire circumstance prevents it. An effectively invisible Church in the world is no Church at all; a “virtual” Church is a contradiction in terms. If it becomes the Church we are left with after Coronatide we will have lost, and have failed the Lord when it counted most. Like Peter, we could repent, but what will the cost have been?
So for now I, as so many others, will soldier on streaming liturgy, in my case on Facebook, either through my own page or that of St Elizabeth’s, Scarisbrick. It offers, at the very least, an opportunity to demonstrate liturgical essentials.
But if you want a solid but readable investigation into the potential consequence for the Church of Coronatide, and its handmaiden coronamania, then read Professor Stephen Bullivant’s pamphlet available to download for free at Word on Fire. It offers much for thought, reflection and prayer. You can download it by clicking the picture.
PS Mass this morning was, naturally, with a view to today’s 75th anniversary of VE Day. May God be merciful to all who fell, and all who suffered, during that true disaster for humanity. May we learn something from it for today, not least the need to practise the selflessness of Christ.