It’s almost exactly a year since I peered through the window of the church door and made my apologies to those who had come out for the evening service. It was one of the worst moments in my many years of ministry as a priest.
“Go home, we are closed.” I didn’t say it quite like that. But that was how they understood it – and they were right to do so. I felt I had abandoned them. Many churches are still shut, doors bolted to those seeking communion.
Lots of people will tell you that there are many ways of being a church. And that’s true, as far as it goes. The Church is being the Church when it gathers food for those who are struggling, when it offers support over the phone. Yes, and also when it goes online.
During this last year, my church – doors defiantly open since the summer, broadcasting simultaneously on Zoom – has actually grown in numbers.
We used to get two or three gathered together for mid-week service, now we get 30. As well as those attending physically in the building – the Home Service, I call them – we have regular weekly congregants from Ghana, Mauritius, Australia, as well as from all over the UK – the World Service.
For a small church like mine, it gives this extraordinary sense of being a part of something much larger than our little corner of south London. From now on, I suspect there will always be a camera in front of the altar. We are all televangelists now.
But despite Zoom’s many advantages, no technology can outweigh the fact that Christianity is inescapably physical. It is not just “a message” that can be communicated through social media. It is also about bodily participation, the receiving of bread and wine.
And while the carefully nuanced and endlessly debatable metaphysics of how bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus is a question I have long left to the theological anoraks, I have no doubt that receiving the Eucharist is a physical activity requiring physical participation. The statements “this is my body” and “this is my blood” make Christianity about matter, physically ingested. You can no more do this over Zoom than you can go to the dentist over Zoom.
This is why lockdown has been such a threat – literally – to the lifeblood of the Christian faith. And why the bolted door was such a betrayal of the need of so many of my parishioners for the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.
This Thursday evening, Maundy Thursday, churches traditionally hold “watch services” where we sit up into the small hours to stay with a terrified man who did not want to be alone on the night before he was to die. This year it will be hard not to think of all those who have died without the physical presence of their loved ones beside them.
Saying goodbye over Zoom, unable to reach out to hold someone’s hand, has to be among the most appalling things that some families will ever go through. And Last Rites are really not for Skype.
There is, quite simply, no substitute for being there. And at no point during the Church’s year is this more obvious than during Holy Week, when the suffering of Christ on the Cross is not just a metaphor for some generalised sense of spiritual pain, but the real torture of a real body. Watching on Zoom threatens to turn the whole thing into some sort of spectacle, a distant pornography of suffering, something to watch from a distance rather than to be a part of.
Zoom may be a godsend to those who are housebound, but young children generally hate it, unable to focus for long. And to those who have been on endless business calls all week, its just another hour of alienating technology. The Church should be restoring souls, not sucking them away like some digital dementor.
Which is also why the Church must not trade in its bricks for clicks. Online church may be a lot cheaper than maintaining thousands of beautiful medieval barns, and require much less staffing. But – however convenient it might look – the Church can never be eviscerated into some online ether because Christianity is nothing without the bodily presence of Christ.
As our friends in Rome put it: Ave verum corpus.
Giles Fraser is the priest-in-charge at St Mary’s, Newington