“Once I’m sure there’s nothing going on, I step inside letting the door thud shut”, wrote Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going. To the none believer, there is a strong draw to church buildings while, to the priest and community, these buildings are the custodians of memories, “once on an evening like this… a preacher caught fire and burned steadily before them with a strange light”, writes R.S. Thomas of an “ugly” chapel. Stones and timbers embody the memories of a nativity play with grandchildren, a funeral for a young soldier, the magic of bats flying through the Midnight Mass fumes of port and incense. But above all these places recall the loving nature of a God who “dwelt among us”. Buildings in the centre of their community, often for a millennia, recalling that “prayer has been valid”: in feast and famine; in joy and sorrow; and in pestilence and health.
So this Sunday morning, I went into St Vedast Church, which is on the same site as the Rectory, printed my sermon and then, sermon in hand, along with robes, vessels, books etc. went out side and celebrated the Parish Mass in my back garden/church courtyard against the outside wall of the church building. If I had been on the other side of the wall I would be going against very strong bishops’ advice not to celebrate even lone services in church buildings. What does this unusual celebration of the sacrament imply about our understanding of church and church buildings?
I stream the Mass as, following social distancing, we no longer gather around our altar to share bread and wine. But to the sadness of regulars and the incomprehension of the wider community, I am not able to stream within the church. Despite pictures in St. Vedast of celebrations with no roof, windows, or woodwork and the treasured possession of blackened and damaged communion vessels from the blitz, there is an assumption that now we need to withdraw from our building. At the very time when the church should be offering the generosity of the familiar, the assurance of being at the heart of our communities, we have withdrawn to kitchens and gardens. Although Easter incense wafted down Foster Lane from the open air Mass, unlike my Roman Catholic brethren I can’t say Mass in church nor offer last rites to a parishioner dying of covid.
In a Zoom nationwide conversation with priests, we noted how few funerals we were doing at this time of fatal pandemic. It appears that mourning families are not turning to their local vicar or wider church. Is that any wonder if we are not seen to be offering prayer in the places where communities have gathered for centuries, nor being present alongside health care professionals? Mass said in the home, in these circumstances, does not recall the early church gathering in houses, that was due to persecution and while church buildings were being established. Mass said in the home may imply a church on the margins unable to take a spiritual lead. John’s gospel, so familiar from Christmas services, recalls, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. We look forward to once again dwelling among our communities in our familiar buildings.