I disagree with pretty much everything in this post by Ephraim Radner. I don’t think consolation of lonely people is distinctively “motherly”; I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the church being “motherly” — that’s not just a “well-worn trope,” that’s part of the job description; I don’t think any of the things he believes we ought to learn are in any way compromised by livestreaming services. I don’t see the value of seeking, in a time of deprivation, still more deprivation.
So why do Radner and I see things so differently? I wonder whether it has something to do with the difference between a priest (Radner) and a layman (me). Radner might well ask whether it makes sense for churches to keep trying to do the same things that they’ve been doing all along; but church is not something I have been doing all along.
In the first part of this year, before the coronavirus and its consequences hit, I wasn’t at church very often. Some Sundays I was traveling. On others I was trying to recover from exhaustion, because for the past few months I have had, for the first time in my life, ongoing insomnia. (I have never been a good sleeper, but this level of sleeplessness is something new to me. New and not good.) And some Sundays I was just lazy, wanting some few hours in which to drink coffee and watch soccer. Only when I couldn’t go to church did I realize what price I might have been paying for missing it. And that’s when I started to crave it.
In my biography of the Book of Common Prayer I discuss the transformation, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, of parish worship services from a model based on Morning Prayer to a model based on weekly Parish Communion. That hasn’t been universal but it has certainly been widespread, especially in the U.K. and the U.S. This recession of Morning Prayer from Sunday worship has led also to a general lack of familiarity with that service, and a lack of interest in participating in it. That, plus rigid work schedules, helps to explain why at my parish church, St. Alban’s, we might have 350 people show up for Communion on Sunday and then seven people show up at Morning Prayer for the entire rest of the week. I think I have been to Morning Prayer at St. Alban’s twice, ever.
But last week I did Morning Prayer four times (I only missed Monday because I forgot). My wife and I sat in our living room and listened to the reading of Scripture; we made our intercessions at the appropriate time; with our knees touching and our prayer book opened before us, we followed along with the service and said the responses. And gradually we are gaining a better understanding, a felt understanding, of why Morning Prayer has been so important for so long to so many people. The rite is beginning to reshape our hearts. It is of course possible that when all this is over we’ll lose this habit; but I hope not; and even if so, we’ll know what we are missing, and perhaps will be drawn back to it again in times of need.
I don’t see how this experience can in any way be a bad thing.
If you’re interested in participating, however virtually, in the services of St. Alban’s, you can find the streams and recorded videos here.