Okay, its official moniker is Covid-19, but it's better known as Coronavirus. Just when we thought that the threat of World War 3 had receded a bit, and everything one could possibly say about climate change had been said, it turns out that the biggest threat to our world is not these huge issues but an itty-bitty virus nobody can see. Ironically, if we catch it, most of us will feel no more than off-colour for a few days and then we'll be fine, no big deal. But some of us won't be fine, and because of that, the world has virtually come to a standstill. Businesses large and small will fold, many will lose their jobs, young people's education will suffer and life chances will be lost. Sport and entertainment venues have been shut. The Government is attempting to space out the number of people who will get seriously ill at any one time because the NHS is already showing the strain and there will be a queue for ventilators. We have been told to avoid as much social contact as possible and I understand the need for that. How that will work after a while remains to be seen. How can we trust people to self isolate when they evidently can't be trusted to buy toilet roll?
Churches have been closed, services suspended, and Ministers like me are wondering what is the appropriate way to be Church in this unprecedented situation?
The most visible aspect of Church in any community it its church building where people meet to worship. This we can no longer do. Some churches are moving their services on-line, broadcasting them on websites and social media pages. We can't afford to do that. All the licenses we'd need to do it legally would I'm told set us back another £1000 a year. But why would we? Many churches are broadcasting already - why do we all need to do it? If you want an internet church service, they are not hard to find.
But they all miss one important point. Physically meeting together for church IS the point. When we look at it being done on a screen, it's not church. We can sing along with the hymns, we can pray along with the prayers, and that will have some value, of course, but it's still not church because we are not meeting as a community.
Why do we need to be there? Because Community is of the essence of church. More than that, it is of the essence of God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; his very nature is community. When Jesus founded the church he knew this and founded a fellowship that would forever manifest the Divine Presence on earth, acting as His presence when He was no longer physically present. Moreover it is part of our humanness to need community. That is how God created us. We need to be connected and our health suffers when we are isolated. We need touch, conversation, contact with other human beings. But our best and most fulfilling contact involves God who made us the social creatures that we are. Not surprisingly, our contact with God works best when we are also in contact with others seeking the same. St Paul pretty much summed it up in Romans 12. 1-2 (NLT):
"And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect."
When we can't do that, what is left? Not enough! But, needs must. The church is a place to gather, but it is not just that. It is also a serving community, looking outwards to minister God's love, in Jesus' name. In the strength of the Holy Spirit we carry on being Christ's people, living the Gospel, cheering and helping our neighbour, bringing encouragement and practical help, remembering one another, loved ones, friends and the wider world, in prayer. This is what we must do in these times. This is how we can be the Church, even without gathering for church. But it is not ideal. Let us pray that the the Covid-19 epidemic will be shorter than some are predicting, and that our churches can reopen as soon as possible.