Yesterday, for the first time in months, I opened the doors of my church to local people that want to come in here for private prayer. After what feels like an age, the green shoots of church life are beginning to re-appear. And many of my church people are excited at the thought of coming back. It has been a great sadness to me that at precisely the moment when many people have been limited to their locality, the Church of England decided to re-invent itself as some internet phenomenon, transcending the confines of place.
This could have been an opportunity to re-discover the importance of location, and of the need for, and joy of, the steadying comfort of human rootedness. Instead, it became just another one of the church’s many ‘initiatives’. In church speak, these are called “fresh expressions” — a phrase that sends the chill wind of a dementor’s presence down the spine of many a parish vicar.
It’s funny how the church is often the last to understand the treasure with which it has been entrusted. The day before yesterday I chatted on the phone with my friend Maurice Glasman. Always rolling another fag, always fizzing with ideas. And his big idea at the moment is… the parish. Now, I don’t need much persuading here. And as Maurice was enthusiastically eulogising the political possibilities of this ancient unit of both civic and ecclesiastical togetherness I did wonder whether I should interrupt him and ask about how this fits with his Judaism. But it’s hard to stop him when he’s on a roll. And he is right.
It seems that, in all the fuss of lockdown, I hadn’t properly noticed a fascinating open letter that he and a number of others had sent to the churches, offering some thoughts about where we might go from here.
I was very touched by these words. And, to be fair, the Church of England still does all this much better than most other institutions. My gripes about the church are always the gripes of someone who loves it so much he can be rude about it. Lord Glasman co-authored the letter with a number of notable Anglicans. And this is exactly the sort of vision that keeps me going as a parish priest. As I unlocked the doors yesterday, I did so with these words ringing in my head: “the elemental theatre of living community.”