A time of opportunity, a time of reflection
We remain in the midst of a crisis, one that is not going to pass anytime soon. In exploring how churches have responded so far, Ian Stackhouse expresses both gratitude and concern
I confess that I have been quite vociferous in my disdain for the government’s persistent use of lockdown as a way of dealing with covid. In my opinion, the ‘collateral damage’ will be significantly greater than anything arising from the virus. I also have serious concerns about the restrictions on worship that we have endured this past year, as well as restrictions on civil liberties in general.
In stating these concerns, I have been accused of various things: recklessness, paranoia, and lack of compassion. But strangely enough the one that has irritated me the most is the charge that I am stuck in the past, unable to realise the enormous opportunities brought about by this crisis. Indeed, someone made a comment to me other day that my desire to regather Millmead in our new sanctuary might yet prove my Achilles heel, simply because the gathering of large congregations in one place is now regarded by cutting edge missiologists as something of an old wineskin.
Whether it is an old wineskin remains to be seen. These radicals may well be right. Simply at the level of practicalities, they certainly have regulations on their side. I cannot see things getting going anytime soon. As it was, we decided as a church to gather last weekend (10 January), in accordance with government regulations (and baptised four people on Sunday evening). It was wonderful. But I am aware that things may yet revert, anytime soon, to live stream only.
Meantime, as we wait for the vaccination programme to be rolled out, let me make a few reflections to at least clarify my views on what is happening:
1. The virus is real. One of our church members died with covid, on Easter Sunday as a matter of fact; and another spent nine weeks in intensive care. These two incidents alone have affected our community profoundly and have stretched me as a pastor to the very limits of my experience. Officiating at restricted funerals - and weddings for that matter - with everyone socially distanced and masked, is not something I could have imagined a year ago, let alone 30 years ago when I started out in pastoral ministry.
2. Speaking as a historian (which was my first discipline), as well as a theologian, the idea that we might return to normal is, I agree, a pipe dream. We are living through a change of epochs. Finally, we get to live through history, rather than just read about it. It is both exhilarating and exhausting. What the church will look like in the future is not entirely clear right now.
But one thing it will not be is back to what it was; and the sooner we embrace that, the easier things will be.
3. The church that I serve has been truly astonishing in the way it has responded to the situation. I have a leadership team that has excelled in innovation this last year; techies for whom this has been a dream time; and a congregation that has been adept in caring, both in the community as well as the church. Ministries have begun during this last year that hitherto we had only talked about. And the levels of giving to missions, charities, and churches (not to mention the giving towards our new building which was completed during lockdown) has left me speechless.
Like many other churches, we have seen an upsurge in interest in the gospel. People have joined us online, Alpha courses have flourished, and the general atmosphere seems, at least for the moment, conducive to faith. I have my own testimony of conversations with people which a year ago would have been inconceivable.
So, these are all good things. I am sure that there are churches more agile than ours; and many churches, conversely, that have struggled to survive. It has been a challenging time, to say the least. But as a mainstream church, located in the Bible Belt, I am simply registering my gratitude to God for all the remarkable stories that have emerged from this pandemic. The times are hard, but I have lived long enough to recognise that God is sovereign in every situation, including this one. Indeed, I have spent enough time over the years in places like Pakistan to know that suffering often heralds the most opportune times for the church.
What I cannot understand, however (and at this point I want to challenge some attitudes), is the following:
1. Why it is that some of those who relish these times of opportunity regard this as ‘mutually exclusive’ to the call to engage in public debate about covid. I simply don’t understand that. After all, our faith is not just about saving souls, or even feeding mouths (both of which are central to our vocation), nor simply about being church (which I do regard as our primary calling), but also about speaking truth to power.
To not recognise this is to misunderstand the political nature of the gospel in its original form – that is, the New Testament - and to reduce Christian faith, if we are not careful, to a pious sentiment. Too much of that has been happening, in my opinion, over this last year – at least on this matter of lockdown. Talk about racism, or the environment, and there is an increasing responsiveness among Christians – rightly so. So presumably we do want to engage.
But when it comes to issues like the growing incursion of the state into everyday life, the astonishing power of the media, political correctness (as we used to call it), or even freedom of worship, not to mention moral issues such as abortion, we seem to have lost our instinct and vocabulary. Instead of raising questions this last year and speaking up for the thousands if not millions of people who will be most affected by these unprecedented government restrictions, it feels to me that we have retreated to what Bonhoeffer might call a pious cul-de-sac – what P.T. Forsyth calls a ‘suburban piety.’ We have made such a virtue of compliance that we are in danger of betraying our Baptist forebears for whom freedom of conscience, the heretical imperative (by which I mean the courage to raise questions), and the suspicion of power was axiomatic to being a Christian.
2. Another area of concern for me is the ease with which some people are consigning corporate gatherings to those things that pertain to the old world. I don’t think it is always stated as explicitly as this, but it certainly can be inferred from what is said in certain quarters. Church as we have known it is passe, so the argument runs.
In response, I do indeed concede that there are many ways to gather, other than the ones we have been used to. We need to be careful not to make idols of any cultural form. Furthermore, one would have to be a real Luddite not to recognise the benefits of virtual meetings, for example, both now and in the future.
But to imagine that virtual church, or social media more generally, will one day eclipse actual church, is not only alarming to my personality type but, more importantly, strikes right at the heart of the incarnation. Whatever else Christmas is, it is a celebration of the Word made flesh, and this translates into something critical to a mature faith: namely, the physical gathering of God’s people in all its awkwardness and peculiarity. Which is not a plea for Sunday worship, as such, but is a plea for what Richard Neuhaus calls the ‘Thus and So-ness’ of the Christian community.
3. Finally, I should like to question the use of the word opportunity to describe the church’s response over this last year. Opportunity speaks of boldness, creativity, courage, and risk. And although many of these things have been evident, too much of our decision-making has been determined, in my opinion, by an overuse of the precautionary principle. In which case, maybe a better word than opportunity is contingency. And the reason I would like to propose contingency is not to downplay the newness of this time, but to be honest about our chariness, and reflective, therefore, about what might need to happen next.
After all, it’s not as if this crisis is going to pass sometime soon. In many ways, our challenges have only just begun. And whilst there will be times in the coming year when conformity is going to prove a wise course of action (as it has on many occasions this last year), my own view is that we are not going to fully bear witness to Christ in these strange times we are passing through without some recourse to non-conformity.
I offer these reflections to our Baptist community, not in any way claiming the last word on the matter but hoping to at least stir up some debate.
Ian Stackhouse is senior pastor of Millmead, Guildford Baptist Church
Image | Markus Spiske | Unsplash
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