Empty Churches and Communities Full of Faith
Since 20 March 2020 all our churches have been empty. They have been empty even when they ought to have been full. The silence has weighed heavily on the hands of those clergy who, to check that the heating was still functioning or that no one had left the lights on, popped their heads around the door. Our Catholic bishops requested that their priests continue to offer Mass in the church every day and, even in Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, the liturgy continued to be celebrated at Our Lady and St Anne.
Some churches have live-streamed their Sunday and daily services, others have not. And yet the church was empty, not even the rustle of the legendry church mouse disturbed the silence. A restaurant is a particularly lifeless place without the busy, merry chatter of patrons; a school is an eerie echo-chamber without the animated, excited buzz of children; and a church seems particularly adrift of its moorings when, on the Lord’s Day, no one but the priest/parson or minister is present.
Silence is, of course, an integral part of all our religious traditions: monks live largely in silence, Trappist monasteries are precisely sought after because they are so quiet and, in the Reformed tradition, what Catholics call meditation or private prayer is often referred to as ‘quiet time’. And it may well be that soon – even before the July Caversham Bridge goes to press – our churches may again be allowed to open their doors for private prayer.
Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting on what our experience of closed church doors has taught us. It is worth remembering that most of our churches are empty most of the time. I occasionally wander into Dorchester Abbey or Malvern Priory and love being alone there. And then I realise that I am not alone because, in a unique way, this is God’s house, the prayer of past generations seeps out of the ancient stonework, our forefathers in the faith were baptised, married and buried from here, and they worshipped God here too in prayer and song. The same feeling I have when I wander into Our Lady and St Anne early in the morning or in the night hours. But then I remember that, as far back as the earliest pages of the Old Testament, God insisted that he was a ‘god of the living’. His house comes alive only when the people are gathered there. Ecclesia/Church means gathering, assembly.
The buildings are important, many of them are structures of immense artistic and architectural beauty and, given they belong primarily to God, they are also houses which belong to us all. The parson, priest or minister may be the custodian, but he/she looks after our house as a caretaker. We do have ZOOM, we do have Facetime, and we have remained in touch through post and telephone. Covid-19, were it to arrive in the 1980s, would have had a different impact on our church life. And yet we are a little like the exiled Jews in Babylon, we find it painful to remember Zion let alone sing its songs, and we continue to pray to the Lord to deliver us from bondage (Ps. 137/125). These psalms can be our prayer, but it is important to recall that, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, the first thing they did was re-build the Temple.
Once we return to our various churches, the re-building project will begin and yet, unlike the Jews of old, we have the additional advantage of knowing we are the living stones and that, while the church buildings were closed, we were still the Church, we were still the members of the Body of Christ.
Father Patrick Daly
Our Lady and St Anne