“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him”.
Today I am going to break from my normal practice of preaching on the gospel to talk to you about the Covid-19 epidemic and how we should best respond to that as a church. And I think it’s worth restating at this point the really important message that people who feel unwell should not be coming to church, especially if they have either a cough or a fever, and that people who feel themselves to be vulnerable to this virus should also think seriously about staying away for the foreseeable future. [This has obviously been superseded by subsequent events].
But all of this raises some interesting and challenging questions about how we can continue to be the Body of Christ in this place when many of our members may be unable to be present at regular worship.
The Christian faith is of course a faith of incarnation, of the Word made flesh in a particular time and in a particular place for the salvation of the world. And so it is right that we too should meet together in flesh and blood at a particular time and in a particular place in order to worship. In ordinary circumstances I would be encouraging you to come to church regularly and often. After all, the bible itself tells us in the Epistle to the Hebrews that we should not neglect to meet together. But these are not ordinary circumstances, and so we have to develop ways of living out our life as the Body of Christ without necessarily actually seeing each other in the flesh. There are a number of ways in which we can do this.
Most obviously, keep in touch. We are blessed to live in an age of wonderful communication technology. And the good old fashioned telephone can be a great help. If you have to stay away from church because you are unwell or because you are vulnerable, call the parish office, or call or text me on my mobile. If I know you are self-isolating, I will endeavour to telephone from time to time to see how you are. And look out for each other. Keep in touch with each other. Pray for each other. And this applies not only to those who come to church but also to those who do not. We can witness powerfully to the love of God in this place if we are active in looking out for our friends and family and neighbours who may be in trouble.
It is also I think quite obvious to say that you can still worship and pray at home. What is perhaps less obvious is that it is actually quite easy to do this in a way that unites us with others. The Church of England website has a fantastic resource for Daily Prayer – just google Church of England Daily Prayer, open the page and scroll down a bit, and you will find the appropriate office of Morning and Evening Prayer available with just one click. (https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-service-daily-prayer) If you want the old Prayerbook version, click on “more options”, and take it from there. If you use these online services you are praying alongside thousands of other people who also pray according to the same pattern, and you are also praying alongside the numerous generations of Christians around the world who have shared in the tradition of praying with the Holy Scriptures, a tradition of which our Anglican Daily Office is a part.
If the internet is not your thing, the Book of Common Prayer is your friend. Morning and Evening Prayer are simply set out, the Psalms arranged at the back, each day allocated its portion for morning and evening. You just need a bible and a lectionary to give you the portions of scripture for each day to go with it. If you need help acquiring a lectionary, just let me know. It is my hope that the impact of self-isolation on our churches may actually drive a revival in the practice of private prayer and devotion in the church.
What is even less obvious is that the church has always taught that benefits of Holy Communion are available to those who are prevented from attending church.
As the Prayerbook puts it:
But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness… or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.
Let the reader understand: I am not suggesting that you can all just stay in bed on Sunday instead of coming to church. The Archers’ omnibus is not a just impediment! But Covid-19 is. And practically speaking, you can pray through the Communion service on Sundays at home, using the Collects, Epistles and Gospels as set, but stop when you get to the Offertory, and skip to the additional collects at the end which can be found after the blessing. The Book of Common Prayer is simpler to use than the modern liturgies, which offer multiple options and choices for everything, and by following this service alone at home you are still joining with the church united through time and space, those past generations who faithfully worshipped with the Prayerbook, and those many Christians around the world who continue to do so.
For what it’s worth, I am also now putting my sermons up on the St Mary’s website. (http://www.stmaryshenley.org.uk/who-we-are/rectors-blog/) And a printed version of this sermon is available at the back of church with links in it to the various online resources that I have mentioned.
In short, I encourage you to take heart. Many of us may be prevented from meeting together, but Jesus is still with us, and we can be with each other too in spirit. We can even take self-isolation as an opportunity to grow in our practice of private prayer. So please take care of yourselves and each other. Keep in touch with me and with each other. Look out for each other and your families, friends and neighbours. Pray for each other, for our community, for the Church, the Nation and the world. Make use of the online resources that I have mentioned if you are able to do so, and if you are not, dust down your old Prayerbook, and you will find it a very useful and rewarding companion.