November 6, 2020

Many in my congregation were in tears on Sunday morning as I announced that churches were being ordered to close their doors once again. I had found out only a few hours earlier, since the Prime Minister hadn’t seen fit to mention it in his public statement the previous afternoon. “The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in Magna Carta and it is of the very essence of our common life that the liberties and freedoms of the people of this land extend to public worship,” wrote my own Bishop in a letter to his clergy. But Johnson didn’t bother to explain why — or even that — we were being shut down. We were in the small print, announced after the fact.

Some might wonder what my congregation was so afraid of? After all, private prayer is still allowed. But this argument profoundly misunderstands what churches do and, particularly, how they function to combat loneliness. By loneliness I don’t just mean the experience of being alone, but something far more existentially corrosive.

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Millions of us are once more being locked into the fortress of our own homes, with little relief, without the comfort of company, without the presence of another’s touch or conversation. Even before Lockdown 2, loneliness was at epidemic proportions in this country. Now it represents a full blown emergency — with huge consequences for our mental and physical health.

There is, though, a difference between loneliness and being alone. And many who have chosen a form of lockdown for themselves do not experience loneliness; at least, not in the same way. Members of religious communities, for example: monks and nuns. Some live lives of silence and quiet contemplation, eschewing the sort of social connectedness that most of us take for granted. Yet we also speak of such people as living “in community” — which can seem an odd phrase, given that they have chosen the monastic life partly because it relieves them of the whole buzz of social engagement, the very thing we generally mean by “community”.

No, what living “in community” means in a monastery is participation in the worshiping life of a place, by which one is connected to others on a profound and intimate level through the love of Almighty God.

I have no idea how the new Covid restrictions will affect those living in closed communities, sealed off from the outside world. It strikes me as patently ridiculous that Mass will not be said in such places. Not, I suppose, that the Government would ever find out if it were. And I hope they do continue to come together and say their prayers and receive the comfort of holy communion. Because without that, I imagine that many of them will be lonely indeed, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

In her beautiful book A Biography of Loneliness, Fay Bound Alberti describes loneliness as a distinctively modern phenomenon. “Have people always been lonely? Is loneliness a state that can afflict us all, regardless of our time in place and history? I don’t believe so,” she argues, going on to say that, “loneliness in its modern sense emerged as both a term and a recognisable experience around 1800, soon after ideas about sociability, and secularism, became important to the social and political fabric.”

For Alberti, secularisation has much to do with our current condition of chronic loneliness. And this makes a good deal of sense. Roughly speaking, for those who lived before the 19th century, the world outside our window was not some inert space without personality or meaning.

In his autobiography, the British monk Bede Griffiths describes a solitary walk he had while still at school. He describes the birdsong and the bloom of hawthorn trees: “I remember now the feeling of awe that came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it were but a veil before the face of God.”

The former political dissident and Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, described something similar from his prison cell: “As I watched the imperceptible trembling of [the] leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time.” He described himself as “standing at the very edge of the infinite”.

Both these men experienced lockdown: one chosen, one imposed. And their mystical experiences express a relationship to the outside world in which it is forever pregnant with comfort, meaning and purpose. If secularisation is implicated in our current crisis of loneliness, as Alberti argues, it is perhaps because these kinds of experiences seem peculiar to many of us, in ways that they absolutely wouldn’t to our forebears. Max Weber called the process by which we lose such a sense of the world as disenchantment. And with it the world became a chillier, lonelier place.

What is interesting to me about the Griffiths and Havel stories is not that some sensitive individuals have exotic-sounding, highly poetic experiences of the world. But rather that we have almost lost the form of life through which such things can be experienced by all. That has traditionally been the function of the church: to establish a whole pattern of being and ordered meaning, through which what people call reality can be felt as loving and purposeful, and through which individuals can feel connected to each other and to creation.

There are what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “horizons of significance”, the background against which things make sense. For present purposes, I will bracket out the question of whether this is a discovery or a projection. I simply want to suggest that without this kind of frame, the experience of being in the world became susceptible to existential loneliness in a way that it never was before. And that, in short, is why monks and nuns don’t get lonely. They are self-consciously embedded in a world that is so much larger than themselves. I don’t mean they have private invisible friends to keep them company; I mean they experience reality itself as the bearer of loving personality.

Many have been making the point that churches are not like golf clubs or friendly societies. Churches are the bearers of meaning for those who attend, the place where that all-important “horizon of significance” is sustained, nourished, and lived out. And for those of us in the Catholic tradition, this takes place supremely through the Mass, our holy communion. Here is where reality is most fully expressed as pregnant with loving significance. Which is why not being allowed to gather for holy communion is not just some simple privation, but an axe taken to the very root of our being. Our community is formed by communion.

Our present Prime Minister, perhaps more than any other before him, has a tin ear to the purpose of religious gathering. I don’t suppose it has helped that the Bishops have recently used up much of their political capital on things like Brexit. But even so, Johnson just doesn’t get religion. He sees it as just another glorified leisure activity, and one that can be turned off and on at will.

It absolutely isn’t. It is the basis for everything else that we, as believers, do. Not just one thing among others, but the background against which all that we do makes sense. He wants us to continue to serve the community with food banks and the like, which we will. But he refuses to appreciate where the basis for that community solidarity lies and out of which it grows. What is at stake here is a whole infrastructure of meaning and care.

And my congregation have strongly been making these very representations to me. There is a winter of emptiness and meaninglessness on the way and many are frightened. Which is why I won’t be meekly consenting to the strictures of secular authority. Yes, we will keep safe, as churches have been. Churches are not hot-spots of transmission. But as well as maintaining Covid vigilance, I will do all I can to serve my congregation as their priest, under the authority of my bishop. They expect me to. And they are absolutely right to do so.