Empty Church: Photo by Monashee Frantz

Is the House empty?

Prayer, plague and the Person of Christ

Artillery Row

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed …

Each year of my adult life, when I have heard or prayed these words of Cranmer’s Good Friday collect (prayer for the day), it has been in a parish church, stark and stripped of its furnishings for the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion. This year, of course, it is different. On this Good Friday in the time of Covid-19, the parish church is locked and darkened, sitting in an unnatural silence. Today I prayed the Good Friday collect sitting on a wooden bench in my garden, amidst the sounds of neighbours cutting the grass, children playing, and a power-hose cleaning a driveway. No solemn liturgy, none of the hymns which evoke the Cross, no sermons to draw us in heart and mind to the Crucified, none of the stark, noble beauty of the parish church on Good Friday.

Is this, then, a secular Good Friday, a Christ-less Good Friday? Has Covid-19 secured a profoundly symbolic triumph for the seemingly inevitable trends of secularisation and falling church attendance?

It would be easy to suggest that this is indeed the case. The habits of Christian practice – church-going, prayer, fasting, observance of Good Friday – are precarious in the contemporary United Kingdom, with widespread social indifference or hostility undermining the cultural context often required to sustain such practices. Now with parish churches closed, worshippers necessarily staying at home, and this day passing without liturgies to mark an event central to the Christian Faith, it can be quite convincingly argued that this is a body-blow to an already rather anaemic Christian witness in our country.

The assumption that the UK is now defined by a settled secular culture can at least be questioned

This, however, is Good Friday. It is a day of contradictions, when what seems obvious is refuted and overturned.  A symbol of cruel suffering becomes a sign of mighty love. Wounds become means of healing. A helpless victim conquers. A death bestows life abundant. On any Good Friday, on this Good Friday, the obvious and the self-evident no longer hold sway, no longer determine who and what we are.

We have already seen such signs around us during this time of Covid-19. A virus bearing death has led to a renewed appreciation of the vocation of doctors and nurses, of the love and self-sacrifice inherent to this vocation. A time of social distancing has brought an experience of national unity, the desire for which might have recently been dismissed as rather antiquated and reactionary. We may have thought that our social fabric had been hopelessly weakened by hyper-individualism and the ideology of ‘Snowflakes’, when it has been the case that thousands of volunteers supporting the NHS and countless acts of neighbourliness in communities across the United Kingdom have ensured, in the words of Her Majesty, “those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any”.

If our society is showing ‘Good Friday signs’, what of the Churches in our land? The fact that clergy and churches are, in a variety of ways, ensuring that worship continues online suggests a greater resilience and commitment than many commentators (Christian and secular) routinely assume regarding Christianity in the United Kingdom. The restrictions put in place regarding how clergy can minister to the sick in hospital and officiate at funerals is bringing a new focus to these most traditional of the Church’s roles and the comfort brought by these ministrations. More widely, with #PrayforBoris, one of the UK’s most popular newspapers calling on its readers to pray for the PM, and, according to one study, searches for ‘prayer’ on Google ‘skyrocketing’ over the past month, the assumption that the United Kingdom is now defined by a settled, comfortable secular culture can at least be questioned.

There is also a sense in which, for Christians, the very barrenness of this Good Friday calls us into a deeper union with the Crucified. The stony, unnatural silence of our parish churches on this day; our prayers offered amidst the bustle and sounds of neighbours going about their chores; our inability to draw near in public worship to the Cross. All this can be for us a call to enter more deeply into the Good Friday experience:

“And all his acquaintance … stood afar off, beholding these things” (Luke 23:49).

None of this is to diminish the hardships, fear, and grief brought by Covid-19. The sacrifices and the losses are, and will be, real and painful. These sacrifices and losses are not, however, without love. The hoped-for coincidence of the peak of the virus with Good Friday and Easter Day speaks of the Christian conviction that hardship, fear, pain and death itself are not Christ-less. There can be no Christ-less Good Friday, even in the time of Covid-19, for Christ Himself descended into the depths of isolation and death so that even there life and love would be present.

Reflecting on a westward journey on Good Friday 1613, into the setting sun, John Donne wrote of his soul bending “towards the East”, towards the place of the Cross:

“There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endless day beget”.

Good Friday always challenges and overturns self-evident assumptions. This is no less true of Good Friday 2020. It is a strange Good Friday, but every Good Friday is, and must be, strange, for on this day wounds bring us healing and a death brings us life. 

And so on this Good Friday – the day of the Cross – Christians pray for family and neighbours, for Church and nation, for those of all faiths and none, that in this time of Covid-19 we might know life and love to sustain and renew us:

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross, who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

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