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  • Ross Moughtin

Church (but without your trousers on)


The conservatives are the liberals while the liberals are now the conservatives! It’s all about the importance of church buildings, the geographical location of church congregations at a place on a map, over against the growing importance of cyberspace, the world of interconnected digital technology. All this has come to the fore during the current Lockdown as churches have variously resorted to Zoom, Facebook and YouTube (or a combination of all three) for worship, teaching and even fellowship. Brave new world. There was a fascinating article in the Economist last month on how this shift has played in our country. “Online services swell the Church of England’s congregations,” it reports. They have been a great success, it would seem. “But empty pews in the Church of England have been replaced by packed-out virtual congregations.” Remarkably it seems that 25% of people have attended an online religious service since the Lockdown began – and that figure is now four weeks out of date. The rural church in Cheshire, where my son-in-law is vicar, has seen their numbers treble for their Sunday YouTube service compared to their usual 11.00am congregation. So what are we to make of this? The Economist continues: “This newfound popularity is exposing a gulf between clergy who think of online services as a necessary (and temporary) evil and those who want to innovate. The government has said that churches should remain closed until at least July but liberal vicars are keen for change to outlast the crisis.” “Liberal vicars!” And who are the liberals in this particular context? Well, Nicky Gumbel, vicar of HTB, for one: he is quoted as saying that “the Holy Spirit can work through Zoom. In any other context Gumbel would be described as conservative, certainly in his understanding of scripture and social policies. He is frequently challenged by Christians from the liberal wing of the church, such as by his fellow London vicar Giles Fraser. And yet Fraser in this context is the conservative. He wants our church buildings open for the simple reason that they are essential for ministry. He writes in Unherd: “Yet as busy evangelical executives counted their increasing Zoom followers, the buildings of the church were abandoned by the very people whose job it was to keep them open.” Moreover, Fraser is wary of internet ministry. “With Zoom you can travel the world and meet important people, not only without leaving your study but without even having to put on your trousers. In other words the social obligations of sharing a common physical space no longer apply.” He argues that church buildings are very important, even at some cost. “In a parish like mine, with such a transitory population, the solid permanence of the church building is an expression of the continuity of God’s love over time.” However, the debate is not about whether we should have church buildings or not - most of the ‘house churches’ of the 1970’s have since acquired their own building (even if it is a converted tram shed). We are talking about balance, how to combine a physical presence in this age of super-connectivity. But fundamentally, this challenge is nothing new as the Economist points out in an earlier article: “Religions whose declared aims include the preservation of ancient revelations have always had an ambivalent but ultimately pragmatic attitude to technology. When printing transformed communication in the 15th century, the Catholic clergy saw both opportunities and dangers. In the end it was the Protestant Reformers who benefited.” Sadly you will have read that the John Lewis Partnership, the holy grail of retailing, is closing eight of its stores, putting 1,300 jobs at risk. Chairwoman Dame Sharon White has shown herself to be totally focussed, even making the bold decision to close the opulent Birmingham store which only opened just five years ago after a £35 million investment. The reason? Online sales before the crisis were already 40%. Now that figure has gone up to even 70% And John Lewis has to adapt. Even so, physical presence is still important – most stores are staying open for the simple reason that they are still needed. We like to go shopping for all kinds of reasons. However, of all people Christians should not fear change. Only this morning I was reading Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psalm 46:1f). Jesus tasks us with making disciples of all nations and of everyone, no less. He gives us the resources and that includes the ability to think, plan and act imaginatively, even bravely. This pandemic has changed us all; the challenge is to welcome our generation’s version of the printing press and make it work for the Gospel. We can’t simply go back to where we were before Lockdown: we owe it to our new online participants, with or without their trousers on. #church #gospel #internet #zoom

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