COVID-19’s tragic spread has launched the church into a staggeringly fast period of transformation, argues Canon David Harrison—one that could change how Anglicans perceive the role and importance of church (and God) in their lives.
It’s time to come clean and admit it. I was a coronavirus skeptic.
Oh sure, I watched the news as the virus took hold in China. And then in Italy. And in other places. I saw it unfolding far away. But I never thought it would be like this here in Canada. I was wrong. Plain wrong.
In the early days, a colleague of mine, the Rev. Alison Kemper, asked a question on Facebook: “What will the Church be after the virus has come and gone?” I thought she was overreacting. Hugely. But she was actually being prophetic and asking precisely the right question—before I even knew there was a question to be asked. (Alison is a deacon; she was doing what deacons do so well: keeping the church honest and real about the world.)
And so, coming late to the game, I’m now asking myself that very question. What will the church be after life returns to “normal”?
It’s early days now and, as is being said over and over, this is a marathon, not a sprint. But I still see some signs which lead me to a hypothesis: I think this time in the life of the church is going to turn our ecclesiology (that is, our understanding of the church) on its head.
What do I mean by this? And what leads me to this hypothesis?
In these early days we are seeing the church come alive at the local, even granular level. Parishes and clergy are improvising on a day-by-day or hour-by-hour basis, figuring out “on the fly” how to create and sustain Christian community when gathering to pray and sing and worship is not possible. The church is bubbling with activity and creativity: live-streaming, daily meditations, virtual Sunday School, sharing of liturgical resources and “how to” videos for praying the daily office. We also see growth in mutual care and concern. The phone is making a comeback as the most direct and personal way to check in with those who feel the isolation most keenly. “Zoom” is, all of a sudden, a word that has become commonplace as groups of people figure out how to meet. Virtual coffee hours are being planned, and volunteers abound ready to pick up groceries and medications for those who cannot safely expose themselves to public places.
Before the virus arrived, Canadian Anglicans had become focused on 2040 as the doomsday year—the time when the last Anglican would turn out the lights. And we looked up to our leadership to tell us what this would mean for our future and to give us hope and inspiration. We looked up for the casting of a new vision which would save us. We looked to careful, methodical strategic planning exercises which would, in time, provide just the right five strategic priorities for the future. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of these things. But my hunch is that this virus, and the new world which is thrust upon us each day, may just pre-empt such top-down approaches in favour of a new and revitalized church which is simply taking shape from the ground up before our eyes. It may just be that when something we are used to and take for granted is taken away, we feel its absence more acutely. And that is when we discover in new and powerful ways that the connections of mutual support and care that we find in community are essential to our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. For these connections, we look not up but down to the grassroots to discover who we are and who we will become.
This time of isolation, unexpected and unprecedented as it is, comes during a time when the church had already become isolated and marginalized within society. Christendom is over but, until now, we still had all the outward and visible signs of that era: church spires dotting the landscape, buildings in every community and the complete freedom (at least here) to worship when and how we pleased. And now, for a time, we don’t have those freedoms, our buildings and spires mostly locked tight. Perhaps this is a time for us that hearkens back to the early church in which small, nascent communities began to follow the Way of Jesus, tentatively, often in secret, often invisible to the society around them. Perhaps this a time for us to see in a new way the reality of faithful Christians in our day who must exercise their faith in secret, behind closed doors.
The church was built from the ground up. The persecuted church survived underground. And now, in this moment, it seems already clear that the church will survive, and will renew and sustain itself, from the ground up. By worshipping communities discovering through necessity who and what they will be absent the ability to gather. By smaller groups within communities establishing new norms of mutual care, new ways of praying together, new ways of sustaining the life of the Spirit.
Does this mean we are going to become congregationalists, with every community doing its own thing apart from others? Not at all. In fact the sharing of resources, ideas and creativity among clergy and parishes is already flourishing. A new sense of collegiality is being nurtured. Diocesan leaders have taken responsibility, as they need to, for setting overall policies and protocols to keep people safe and healthy, and they will need to play a vital role in honing financial plans which adapt to the economic challenges created by this virus to ensure that the church’s resources are directed where they need to be at this time of crisis. We aren’t becoming congregationalists, but I do believe that this time is breathing new life into Christian community on the ground, at the local level. At the end of the day—and as it has always been—from where else could the renewal of the church come?
No one knows how long we will live in this world of isolation and improvisation. But when life returns to normal (or, more likely, the “new normal”), maybe we will look toward 2040 not with fear or despair, but rather with both optimism and realism. Perhaps we will be a church reformed yet again by circumstances beyond her control—but also with a renewed and even deeper awareness that we are who we are in community with those who love us and whom we love (even if we don’t always get along). When that time comes—when the pain and fear and loss have passed—we may also find ourselves in deep community with Jesus, who took on our fleshly, personal nature, in order that God may be present where life is the most intimate. And the most real.
The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.