Stephen Cottrell

A first for Christendom: Holy Week without church

We are going to have to follow Jesus in his isolation


Many of us try to give things up during Lent. Usually it is alcohol, or biscuits. Who would have thought that this Lent we would have to give up each other, and distance ourselves even from those we love most and from all those activities upon which we have relied so much. Even church.

In order to slow the spread of Covid-19, our buildings are closed for public worship and even for private prayer. Nothing like this has happened since 1208. The reason then was power, not plague. King John had refused to accept Pope Innocent’s appointee, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope responded by placing England under an interdict between March 1208 and May 1213, thus preventing the clergy from celebrating the sacraments.

It’s not quite the same for us, and we hope our lockdown will not be for so long. People aren’t able to come but, where possible, the Eucharist is still being said. This worship is offered for the nation, not with the nation. Nevertheless, coronavirus has us in a grip of fear. We are looking for spiritual help, but where, in our enforced seclusion, is it to be found?

Paradoxically, throughout Christian history and in other faiths as well, when people sought to deepen their relationship with God they went into the desert. They pursued isolation. This way of living the Christian vocation was called the solitary life. Abba Moses, one of the founders of that movement in Christian monasticism known as the Desert Fathers, used to say to his novices: ‘Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ We are about to find out what that means.

We are going to have to learn how to be on our own, and that includes sustaining our spiritual life on our own. As we enter Holy Week, this is an immediate challenge.

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