Saturday, May 9, 2020
Unless we believe it. . .
No one should be shocked that those who do not believe in God would judge the life of faith nonessential and neither should Christians be surprised that our lapsed and fringe members who do not practice the faith and who see the practice of the faith as essential to their life should also presume that it is also unnecessary to the lives of everyone -- Christian or not. What should be shocking to us is that within the Church — among our leaders, clergy, and faithful alike — there was no protest against such judgment. Why is it that our leaders, clergy, and the faithful in the pews would acquiesce to the idea that Wal-Mart must be kept open, liquor stores and abortion clinics are essential to our daily lives, but the practice of our faith is not. How is it that bishops, presidents, priests, and pastors would remain fairly quiet as the Church and her sacramental life was summarily deemed optional to the faith and non-essential to the faithful?
Please note at this point, I am not advocating revolution nor am I suggesting that we take a militant role against our government and its political leaders. That would be a false characterization of what I am saying. Certainly, it would not only be understood and legitimate that the Church would for a time curtail the former unlimited access to corporate worship -- especially in the face of a pandemic out of control and about which we had little certain knowledge. BUT that judgment would be and remains the Church's to make and not the government's to demand or the politician's to regulate. The Church has lived through many plagues and pandemics over the years and we were not without experience in making a faithful response to such changing conditions. That, however, is the judgement of the Church to make and not the domain of civil authorities. They would certainly be within their rights to ask for the Church's cooperation and partnership but not to preclude it.
Instead what I am condemning is how the Church has behaved as if she also and truly believes that she is not essential, that her sacramental life is optional, and that corporate worship is optional to the practice of the faith. This will surely come back to haunt us. We have either deliberately or unwittingly taught ourselves as pastors, the faithful in the pews, and those outside the Church that locking the doors, forbidding the assembly, regulating our sacramental life, and replacing it with virtual worship on the small or large screen was both legitimate and salutary. In essence we agreed that we as the Church were not to be trusted to act responsibly. Sure, there are always crackpots and kooks who would violate rules and act without care for those in their flock but none of these were actually restrained by the government's guidelines. Only the responsible ones paid attention and did what the medical and political establishment told us we had to do. Even where it was not yet mandated, the Church acquiesced.
If our open doors were ever needed, it is in time of threat. Whether war or pandemic, it is precisely in a crisis that the Church shows to the world hope. This hope is no more profoundly displayed before the world than when the faithful gather around the Word and Table of the Lord. If our liturgical and sacramental life is not essential or needed in time of crisis, when is it ever essential or necessary? If live streamed worship services and video reality substitutes for our corporate gatherings around the Word of the Lord and His altar, why do we need to meet in person at all? If private devotion, spiritual communions, virtual sacraments, and personal piety is an adequate substitute for our coming together on the Lord's Day in the Lord's House, why would we not surrender our face to face meeting together for the sake of cost, convenience, and comfort? If the Church can be shut down, sacraments distributed like fast food or consecrated at home, confession by media, private or postponed baptism the norm, and video funerals to replace our gathering to remember the dead and rejoice in our hope, then she is herself not essential and the Church is but an invisible reality hidden not in the nave but in the home behind locked doors out of fear.
Of course values conflict and compete. The restrictions placed upon the Church were borne of this tension and of those politicians and medical authorities who decided the priorities attached to those values. But is not the Church, the bearer of the highest and holy values of the Kingdom not at least as well prepared to sort the way through the tension between these crucial but competing values? Surely we know that public safety and the unrestrained sacramental life of the Church often come into tension but by placing a ban and acquiescing to that ban, the conversation effectively ended. And the Church was left to echo what political and medical authorities had decided. I am not at all sure that there was ever the critical tension that would require a choice between these competing values and I believe the Church could have found a way to sort out the two showing that public safety was not in conflict with the Church's mission and sacramental life.