One of the simple joys of having a bundle of church keys is that you can wander around in the building when others have gone home. Over lockdown, it has been my retreat from noisy children, an office, a sanctuary and a place to think. It is also where I get to say things out loud, testing thoughts out on the silence. “Please, help me!” I said to the altar the other night, more in anger than in expectation. I was surprised how it came out. Too direct to feel like a prayer, it sounded more of a demand I suppose. Or rather, the kind of demand that feels the presence of defeat at the door. News was just in that the husband of one of my congregation had just been killed by Covid. Another death in the parish.
Pretty much everything is shut round here. For months, now, the local doctor’s surgery has become a no-go zone: its doors bolted against the plague, its website a forbidding maze of alternatives. Tesco and the pharmacy – now heroically taking on the de facto role of the doctor’s surgery – remain defiantly open, spots of lights in the darkness.
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Should the church close too? Is the short term emotional comfort of “Once in Royal David’s City” really worth it if we are risking people’s lives? But if we join the doctor’s surgery and close our doors, what does that say about our own perception of what we do here? “Can you imagine any activity less deserving of priority?” was Richard Dawkins response to the Prime Minister’s announcement that collective worship can continue, even in tier 4. It seems that quite a number of clergy agree with him. Many churches will be closed this Christmas.
Will we be judged as having abandoned people in their hour of need? It’s a harsh question, unfair perhaps. But as Philip Ziegler notes in his seminal study of the Black Death, the clergy “were deemed not to have risen to the level of their responsibilities, to have run away in fear or in search of gain, to have put their own skins first and the souls of their parishioners a bad second”. That, too, was unfair. Ziegler himself notes that parish clergy were more likely to die of the plague than the population in general.
But the perception stuck. And the relationship of trust between the clergy and their people was changed forever, and so the church emerged from the plague “with diminished credit”. He continues “the contempt of contemporaries may not have been justified but it was still to cost the Church dear over the next decades”. And fair or not, I fear the same may well be true this time.
But is that really my worry, that we will be perceived to have abandoned our people? Shouldn’t I just accept this reputational risk as a price worth paying for the protection of my congregation from this monstrous pestilence? So what if the church emerges with diminished credit, isn’t this precisely the kind of sacrifice we are called upon to make? These questions weigh heavily upon me, but they are not the only questions.
There is, of course, a wholly secular argument for staying open. Many here, struggling with loneliness and an ingrained sense of misery and isolation, rely on the church for their mental health. Can I really turn them back when they arrive at the church door looking for comfort? Early on in the first lockdown, I did precisely this. Watching people trudge away, despondent and legitimately angry, was easily the worst thing I have ever had to do in my many years as a priest. I felt I had betrayed them, that all my sermons about this as a place of sanctuary, of welcome, of God’s solidarity with them had, in the end, counted for nothing. It was a wretched moment, and I won’t do it again.
But the argument for staying open is not just a secular one. Throughout advent, the trajectory of thought has been all about our preparedness to receive the Christ child when he comes. Forced to travel the 90 or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to comply with some absurd government directive, the heavily pregnant woman who had been chosen as the means by which God entered the world found no place of shelter to welcome her, the doors being shut in her face. Would the words “no room at the inn” be hung in shame over my church door, if I decided to lock them?
But in the end, the most compelling reason for being open is the same reason for being closed: the presence of death. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined”. These words from Isaiah have long been taken by Christians as an indication of what Christmas is all about. God does not exist in some pristine ethereal space, hovering high above human misery like some distant potentate safe in all that glorious omnipotence.
Indeed, it is precisely the point of Christmas that God lowers his defences to death in order to share in the human condition. Vulnerability is the very condition of solidarity. That’s why God-as-a-baby isn’t a nice heart-warming story of sentimental benevolence. It’s a terrifying risk, attended by genuine danger, in which all hope for the universe comes to be invested within the most vulnerable human thing imaginable: a pathetic, helpless child. The proper reaction to this should be fear not cooing. God has gone all in. Not just skin in the game – though this is as good a summary of incarnation as I can imagine – but everything in. There are no safety nets, no vaccinations against the risk of disaster.
Now, of course, I don’t expect non-religious people to buy any of this. But from a Christian perspective, I am beginning to believe that this might be the most intensely religious Christmas I could ever imagine. That’s why the whole thing feels so much more terrifying. God invests in us at a moment of extreme danger. Sorry if this sounds a bit too much, and yes easily ridiculed, but Christmas is God’s response to the cry “please help me” — a cry I am far from alone in making. And I won’t, I just can’t, close my church to God’s response.