This is a guest post from Canon Simon Butler, vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea.
I’m grateful for being given a right of reply to the article about an exchange between myself and Father Marcus Walker a fortnight ago.
The tragedy of coronavirus has also brought opportunities to the Church to live out and share the gospel. Freed from my typical duties, parochial and national, new responses in worship and mission have emerged. Our local response in Battersea is not unusual. The idea of ‘Coronavirus Angels’ came to me in the middle of the night as lockdown loomed. Since then we have recruited 400 volunteers, raised £13,000 and helped 200 families facing hardship and struggle. On top of that, without a large ministry team or the professional contacts that some have, we have introduced live-streaming a daily service (and two on Sundays), choosing the homespun look rather than the shrine-in-a-dining-room approach.
Most clergy, once over the shock of “Stay home, protect the NHS and save lives”, have taken the opportunities offered by being required to stay at home by the Government. Immense creativity has emerged in the face of adversity – including at St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, where several key services were pre-recorded in anticipation of the lockdown. Kudos to Marcus Walker and others.
A few, though, have been more than disappointed by their exclusion from church buildings. When the London College of Bishops asked their clergy to discontinue live-streaming from their churches, mutinous talk began. Some, including Marcus (who took to Twitter about it) wanted a campaign of priestly disobedience, but that gained little traction.
It struck me as bewildering, in the midst of a challenging but potentially creative period of ministry, to focus priestly energy, time and focus on a legalistic and theological debate about the right of the Bishops to do what they did, or to begin a campaign to get clergy allowed to go back into their churches. Everything that should be done by a priest can be done anywhere in the parish. Clergy can be tempted to self-indulgence in a crisis; this seemed a particularly clear example. As one correspondent put it: “I fundamentally disagree with the decision to close churches completely and I long to say mass in church again. But I also believe now is not the time for the row. I find it hard to come to terms with clergy obsessed with altars and buildings. I also believe that the mass is the mass wherever it is celebrated.” The theological focus right now should be the parish, not its priests or buildings.
This is the background to the trenchant spat that was published on this blog the other day. But it confused two issues. The exchange between Marcus and me wasn’t about closed churches. It concerned a mischievous news piece in The Times about clergy allegedly being prevented from serving as front-line chaplains in the new Nightingale Hospital, supported by an opinion piece by Marcus. I did some quick fact-checking and soon discovered that both the article and Marcus’s piece were short on facts and long on inference. It isn’t difficult to imagine how the paper got the story.
The Bishops involved responded: “We do not recognise the picture painted by Revd. Marcus Walker in his article.” Their statement went on to make it clear that his piece showed misunderstandings of the nature of chaplaincy and the work going on between the dioceses involved and the hospital trust concerned. The whole thing was a waste of everyone’s time. It brought the Church into disrepute.
Which brings me to Adrian’s blog. Adrian says that I should be, as Chair of the House of Clergy in General Synod, representing Marcus to the Bishops. Of course, that is part of my role, although I was writing in a personal capacity on my Facebook page. But it also my role, as a member of Archbishops’ Council, to report back to the wider church the extraordinary amount of work that has been and is going on in the central church, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Church of England’s central staff have been professional and swift in responding to Covid-19 across a wide range of fields, answering a huge number of questions that our national crisis has thrown up. Bishops – and other senior clergy too, who I also represent – have been hard at work pastoring clergy and supporting a vast range of ministries and responses.
If I allowed my anger to show when a well-connected, politically astute clergyman writes in a national newspaper without the courtesy of fact-checking with his Bishop or the other senior clergy involved, perhaps that is understandable. If I showed my irritation when Marcus, in choosing to write at the start of Holy Week, caused senior staff in London, Chelmsford and Lambeth to have to devote time setting the record straight when they could have been using that time more usefully, I crave your indulgence. And if I made too firm a distinction between theological reflection and doing my job than I actually believe, I plead guilty and of course apologise, but ask in mitigation that we save our theologising on place and priesthood to a time when people aren’t dying or facing hardship in quite such large numbers.
Father Walker is back in St Bartholomew’s, quoting Martin Luther. That is not my concern, if he does not put others at risk while the pandemic continues. We’ve not met but I have heard he is a gifted priest with a flair for the dramatic. Kudos again.
But I believe that the midst of a global pandemic is not a time for arguments about legality and theology (note Adrian, it’s arguments that I oppose, not law or theology). It’s not a time for the language of disobedience, rights or the dramatic gesture. It is a time for witness and service. That’s how the Church of England does theology right now, and it’s how we will learn to be the Church of England in that which lies ahead.