Giles Fraser says mass in an empty St Mary's Newington

March 19, 2020   5 mins

In the vestry of my church in south London there is a list of Rectors of the parish going back to 1313. In that time, not once has the central church advised us to lock our doors to parishioners. Nazi bombers put us out of action for a while. But not since 1208 has the Church of England closed its doors to public worship. Though of course, as Roman Catholics will be eager to point out, there wasn’t such a thing as the Church of England back then. The advice issued this week that “public worship is suspended until further notice” is without precedent. And it will change the church in this country forever.

The advice came too late to inform a number of my congregation who made their way to church for Tuesday night Mass. “I am sorry,” I said weakly, through the glass panel in the door. George had come down from Islington. He said that if I were any sort of priest I would tell the archbishops where to stick it, and open up. I tried to explain: pressure on the NHS, keeping the elderly safe, flattening the curve.

But he didn’t get it. We both walked away from the window, him back home, me to the altar. And a little part of me died inside.

Celebrating Mass in an empty church is a weird experience. No need to check your watch to make sure you start on time. I ring the church bell, a bell that is supposed to tell people to hurry up because the service is about to start. But this time it offers no such invitation. I ring it in the hope that a few local people might know we are carrying on, after a fashion. I unplug the photocopier. We are not going to need that for a while. I dress up in my robes, and process out into a dark church, alone.

The opening words of the service are supposed to be a greeting to all who have gathered: “The Lord be with you.” But there is only me to respond. And I do, as the service book dictates: “And also with you.” It’s crazy. I am literally talking to myself in an empty building. And so I start skipping bits of the service. What is the point of the peace or the blessing? The Mass feels like it is falling apart before me. Perhaps this what losing one’s faith feels like? Only when I raise the chalice towards the ceiling with the worlds “Do this in remembrance of me” does the whole thing come back together as purposeful. I drink from the cup denied to others. This is heartbreaking.

Earlier in the day my friend David Lan called to see if we were OK. David used to be the director of the Young Vic theatre, just up the road from my parish. “You wouldn’t put a play on if there was no audience?” I asked him. I wouldn’t, he agreed. But that, of course, is where theatre and liturgy divide. Because the proper purpose of liturgy is the worship of Almighty God, and that is what this church is now for, with the priest performing that ancient function of representing the people to the divine, making the sacrifice of the Mass on their behalf.

Will people come back again when the doors are unlocked? Will the presence of death stalking the land bring people to a more intense sense of their wider place in the great scheme of things? Or maybe people will develop new patterns of behaviour, and start to wonder what they ever needed church for in the first place? Some of our elderly congregants may not be alive when we reopen.

I suspect that weaker churches too may pass away. I have long been challenged by that Larkin poem where he goes into an empty church, takes off his cycle clips “in awkward reverence”, pronounces “here endeth” more loudly than he meant. “The echoes snigger briefly,” he writes. Yes, they do that when you celebrate Mass on your own too. And what is this place for, Larkin asks? What indeed?

Technology will help — but only up to a point. WhatsApp groups will help us organise with each other to help those most in need. And some will broadcast services to people sitting at home. We are thinking about all of this at my church, though many of my parishioners don’t have the equipment to make possible what the telephone and internet people call “universal service provision”. And technology will only help so far because religion is intrinsically a social business. And however much it is needed right now, social media will only ever be a distant simulacrum of the real thing. After all, how does one receive the consecrated bread of the Eucharist, the body of Christ, over the internet?

Many, of course, have long argued that you don’t need church to “do God”. That you can sit at home and read the Bible, go for a walk and pray, commune with the deity in the silence of your own heart. Perhaps the virus will complete the work of reform that Luther started: do away with all the intermediaries between you and God: church, bishops and priests, church councils, flower rotas, incense and chalices. Perhaps. Or perhaps — and I think this more likely — it will stress test as never before the naive idea that we can be spiritual without being religious. Sitting at home, as things fall apart, we may relearn the important role that institutions have in knitting us together, and remember with fondness the role that public worship has as a very effective delivery mechanism for communal values.

In many ways Judaism is better placed than Christianity to withstand this crisis. The Chief Rabbi has closed the synagogues just as the archbishops have closed the churches. But Judaism is much more a religion of the home than Christianity. Many of the great events of the Jewish year — Passover, for example — take place within the home and around the meal table. Earlier this week, as we sat round the table to eat, my wife, who is Jewish, suggested we say grace together as a family. It was unexpectedly moving. After all the challenges of going out shopping, the relief of having food on the table, and the awareness that there are others far less fortunate, the simple words “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful” felt like a whole Eucharist in one sentence.

In his new book Morality, the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, writes about morality being a journey from “I” to “we”. Absolutely right: and the great aim of all true religion is to transfer the centre of interest in life from self to the Other — that Other being both God and other people.

How we approach this task of de-centring in an age of social distancing and self-isolation is the mountainous size of the challenge. Because in all the great religious traditions of the world the Other is the source of life and joy and fulfillment, not the bearer of death. Remaining open to the life-giving Other, while also seeking protection from them: that will be the great tension of our times.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.