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Artillery Row

Priests and palaces

The Archbishops don’t realise the significance of the church building

It was in the sigh, the glazing of the eyes, the falling of the shoulders, and the resetting of the smile; the moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury realised that he was going to have to do a nifty bit of backpedalling, live from his kitchen. Nearly three weeks earlier he and the Archbishop of York had written to the clergy of the Church of England, saying that “our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest.” Everyone who was on message repeated the mantra like a prayer: “stay at home; protect the NHS; save lives.”

The Archbishops’ letter went far beyond the advice of the Government, which had designated the clergy key workers whom it expected to be able to enter their churches for the purpose of livestreaming worship. Read alongside other official documents, bewildered clergy found themselves obliged to enter their church buildings alone to perform essential tasks related to security and maintenance—but were forbidden from praying while they were there. Prayer in church on behalf of others is not the only function of a Church of England minister, of course, but it does still come quite high up the list.

On Easter morning the Primate of All England started singing from a different hymn sheet; what had appeared to be a very clear instruction had not been an instruction at all, only guidance. It was a welcome clarification after the spilling of much ink, the pounding of many keyboards, and the raising of legal eyebrows. The intervening period had been one of increasingly ill-tempered confusion, fuelled by a series of statements from various Anglican apparatchiks who all claimed to be privy to top-level secret information while telling everyone else to mind their own business. 

There were suggestions in some quarters that clergy asking for transparency were not alert to the seriousness of the situation, and that the time taken up with questions showed that they didn’t care that people were dying. That was an unfortunate interpretation of their requests, the public and recorded expressions of which some middle-ranking figures may yet come to regret. Pastorally speaking, the present epidemic remains the greatest challenge the clergy have faced for decades—and not least the healthcare chaplains—and they have not shirked it. Alongside loss there has been gain; livestreaming services for the benefit of the elderly and housebound will go on being a lifeline, and we should have thought of it years ago.

There is a difference between a church and a parsonage shed

Even as guidance, the Archbishops’ letter needs some scrutiny. Buildings and furnishings are part of the warp and the weft of the Christian story: from the ripping of the veil in the Temple at bustling, day-dark Jerusalem, to no-nonsense widows church-cleaning on Easter Eve—Christ rising in the scent of lilies, beeswax, and Brasso. A sense of holy places and holy things belongs as much to Anglicanism as to any other denomination; for the Archbishops to say that “the Church is […] the people of God, not our buildings” is true, but does not present the whole picture. 

There is—there must be—a significance to buildings that have been hallowed for worship according to solemn rites, and cherished and adorned by succeeding generations. In the face of freefalling attendance and dwindling income they are doggedly kept watertight and dampproof against the odds by those who recognise that everything about them proclaims that they are more than just a convenient gathering place. There is a difference between a church and a parsonage shed.

The rhythm of prayer offered in the parish churches remains a quiet, gentle, heartbeat in a storm of nationwide noise. Moreover, for many clergy—and especially for those on the Catholic wing of the Church of England, who tend also to serve in some of the grittiest places—to celebrate the Eucharist daily at the altars of their churches is not some sort of treat to be enjoyed when conditions allow, but the fons et origo of their lives as priests, from which they draw the inner strength that sustains a life of outward service.

The Bishop of Rochester has not dropped his threat to discipline clergy who pray anywhere that isn’t “at home, on the phone, or online”

Much of the opprobrium meted out to the clergy who had asked why the Archbishops wanted them out of their churches, when the Government appeared to want them to be in them, seems to have revolved around a lack of appreciation of this point. A letter of protest to The Times on Monday 4 May was signed by many who might not ordinarily be considered natural ecclesiological allies; it is now well on its way to a thousand signatures. The Bishop of Rochester, however, has still to drop or even clarify his singular—and brave—threat to discipline any of his clergy who pray anywhere that is not “at home, on the phone, or online”. 

It must said that the Archbishops have observed their own guidance to the letter. On the first Sunday of lockdown Dr Sentamu broadcast a service—complete with loud Ugandan drums, which he played himself—from the drawing room of Bishopthorpe Palace; it will fall to the historians of these wilderness days to evaluate whether, in the end, the country’s soul was more richly nourished by the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrating the Eucharist on his kitchen table at Lambeth Palace, or by Cardinal Nichols leading the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter at the High Altar of Westminster Cathedral.

If the Archbishops sincerely believe that the best way of guarding the spiritual life of the nation at this time of crisis is for them publicly to eschew even the private chapels attached to their residences, then consideration of the future must inevitably follow. What do they think the Church of England’s sacred buildings are; what do they think they are for; and what do they think should happen to them when all this is over?

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