During these months of inertia, I confess to having on occasion made illicit trips to churches in the English countryside. Enjoying the frisson that surely accompanies all law-breaking, I have often gone so far as the church door, there to examine not only the locks and bolts but also the laminated notices which adorn so many buildings of the Church of England. The other week I visited a 12th-century church whose laminated instructions were an especially fine example of their kind.
These signs informed the visitor that the church was closed due to the Covid crisis and that God can of course be worshipped anywhere, but (and this part was underlined) ‘not here’. A little harsh, that wording, I thought. But it did jolt me into considering the strange situation we are in, where the British public can now worship the deity anywhere but in church.
Over recent weeks our options for divine worship have grown. Until last month the only place available for worship outside the home was the supermarket or some other purveyor of essential goods. Then members of the public were allowed to offer up their prayers at the nation’s garden centres. As of this week, worship can occur in a greater variety of places. Travelling through the outskirts of London last week, I was struck by how many people were sinking pints at tables outside the pubs. Worshipping the Lord in their own way, I suppose.
It is strange, this total disappearance of the church from our national life. I know of many vicars and priests who have tried to keep things going in their communities, offering Zoom services, Bible readings and the like. But the senior ranks appear to have snuffed out the candles, cancelled the electricity contract and locked up the churches themselves.
At the start of the Covid crisis, as the government and medical professionals decided what the public could and could not do without, churches were deemed a non–essential item.