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/ 30 July 2020

What shape might the church need to take in a (post) Covid-19 world?

By Revd Dr Julie Gittoes

This autumn 2020 the diocesan ministry team will be running a series of theology webinars for clergy, for which this paper will be used.

On 29th April, Tom Robert’s released a poem on YouTube which has been viewed tens of millions of times. Called ‘The Great Realisation’, it’s been translated into dozens of languages.[1] This poem is written as a bed time story to help Robert’s younger siblings in lockdown. Its simple rhymes carry weighty themes. It moves us from pre-pandemic life – ‘a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty’ – towards a kinder world.

It’s view on a pre-pandemic world names the impact of corporate greed, environmental degradation, a world dominated by screens and where relationships are stretched. This poetic view of the pandemic is that in lockdown and fear ‘people dusted off their instincts. They remembered how to smile’. Whilst simple acts of kindness and solidarity are to be celebrated, we need to name that fact that the pandemic is not a “great leveller”. In particular the disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic communities cannot be overlooked.

At the heart of Robert’s poem, the great realisation is that when we were allowed outside ‘we all preferred the world we found to the one we’d left behind’. That line reflects one aspect of how we might be feeling about the church – preferring perhaps this digital realm of worship and connection; and feeling as if we’ve left some of the burdens of buildings behind. However, the reality is that any “great realisation” will mean that we discover or initiate things we want to keep; but we also pause to reflect on what we want to let go of and what we want to return to. How do we adapt, thrive and remain true to our calling?

In this paper, I will consider those questions in relation to what I call our ecclesial “body language”, our way of being together and what we communicate in the world given the reality of physical distancing. The “great realisations” flowing from that include the nature of digital connection as it interacts with questions of access and the importance of the local; and questions of race and whiteness of the bodies within the body of Christ. A consideration of body language also opens up some areas for practical theological engagement as we reimagine our life together.

The body language of the church: what are we saying?

Until March of this year, most of us did not give much thought to our body language – that is, the way in which we communicate without words. Our facial expressions, posture, gestures and even our tone of voice, send a range ‘signals’. Some are intentional, others unconscious. Before we say a word, we are communicating to those around us. Whether or not they are misread, responded to or not picked up on at all is perhaps something we only learn by how people react – with warmth, hostility, interest or avoidance.

With the advent of social distancing measures, it has felt as if we have lost part of our love language. Before public worship ceased, we halted shaking hands and hugging at the peace; in faltering ways we experimented with namaste, making eye contact, joining hands and bowing; or extending our hands as the precursor to an embrace, knowing there’d be no touch and letting go, but rather a space between us. We went online and that re-imagining of how to share a sign of peace continued – we began sharing messages via chat, coming off mute to greet one another or using British Sign Language in a way we’d never been inspired to before.

The question of body language and distance is complex. We accepted that washing our hands was a gesture of care, contributing to the safety of others. We will have to learn how to smile with the eyes as wearing face masks becomes more habitual – or even required. We long for a consoling or friendly embrace; we long for the light touch of reassurance or recognition. We long to speak face to face; to sing out our praise of God. And yet we fear breath; and others cannot breathe. And yet, in our breathlessness, God breathes the Spirit.[2]

The longings are instinctive. The fears and absences, however, are not normal for human beings. Keeping distance and being distanced from others has been intensified in lockdown. As K. Augustine Tanner-Ihm wrote in the Church Times, social – or physical – distancing is a race issue.[3] He writes that it makes us feel less human when someone avoids you but, whereas for most of this season will pass and we will embrace again, for many people this is their lifelong normal.

Our enforced body language is taking us to an empathic and challenging place if we allow us to acknowledge it. Being better disciples means facing our unconscious or implicit biases – part of the social/structural sin of our world. As Tanner-Ihm writes: ‘Sin can be overcome by the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. This transforming presence is not merely about a miraculous experience: it is a radical self-education, being led by the Spirit, and ultimately going against the natural inclination that you have been taught.’[4]

In the midst of the dispersed life of our church, taking time to think about our individual and collective body language is formative. Doing so might resource us for season where our coming together is in a series of smaller gatherings; a season during which some might grieve their (indefinite) separation from people and place.

We talk about the Church as the Body of Christ. We draw on Pauline imagery of interdependence; we reflect on this renewed kinship – being flesh of one flesh. We also hear the challenges around strength and weakness. We also consider ourselves to be a pilgrim people – walking in the world step by step. I wonder if the church also operates with a pattern of “body language”: that we communicate without words to the world around us. In part, such reflections were sparked by “Salvation”, one of the windows in Canterbury Cathedral designed and created by Hungarian refugee Ervin Bossanyi to replace the Victorian glass destroyed by bombing in 1942.[5]

“Salvation” is full of symbolism – of temptation and of guidance; of imprisonment and liberation. It is a compelling image. A contemplative interweaving of figures – figures surrounded by dazzling blue, embodying a range of postures. At the foot of the window, a man looks up beseechingly; his hands held together in prayer.

Above him an angel’s wings unfold. An arm reaches around his waist, holding him steady; holding him an embrace. This figure embodies strength, compassion and grace. His upward gaze is met with a smile. An angelic hand is raised aloft – reaching upwards; extending his horizon; lending hope and dignity to this moment of petition. A sign of blessing.

Above her, another woman stands with her arms are raised and outstretched in the “orans” position; a posture associated with praise and thanksgiving. This tableaux extends further still. Eyes fixed intently on human beings; eyes gazing upwards to light divine. There is release for an individual and flourishing of humanity.

Within the constraints of physical distancing, what are we communicating as members of the body of Christ?

It’s a question which operates at many levels, beginning perhaps with how we worship. How do our gestures and postures express penitence and petition, praise and blessing? Bossanyi’s design prompts us to think about how and what we communicate to others. Does our body language assert our power or restore dignity; do our expressions reveal compassion or disdain?

There may also be a corporate or institutional element to this. What is the body language of the church in the public square? If there is a form of non-verbal communication within the Body of Christ, does it express warmth, joy and assurance – or anxiety, fear and desperation?

The body language of God communicates love in a wordless Word. And the infant grew and spoke with authority and gazed on others with compassion. His touch brought healing and he chose proximity with the marginalised. This Word declared that love wins as he opened wide his arms for us on the cross. In him, salvation extends our horizons, bringing blessing, hope and freedom. He breaths the Spirit on us that our body language might express peace, kindness, joy and love.

As members of the Body of Christ, our language has been shaped by this story; and the retelling of it has been a multi-sensory experience in many ways. It’s reenactment in the celebration of the Eucharist, with the ‘orans’ the gesture of thanksgiving at its heart, as in the Bossanyi window. This story of salvation is communicated in every sensory level – and we can access some or all of that body language: what we touch and taste, see and smell, as well as the words that are said. We are used to being in physical proximity to each other; and the receiving the  life given for us in broken bread and outpoured wine.

We recognise that whether we are live-streaming the Eucharist or focusing on the liturgy of the world that it is not the same: that we are being challenged or called upon to live out the body language of our faith in new ways in this extended

interval of being scattered across homes and workplaces.[6] We embody the richness of the gestures in the “Salvation” window: of petition as inhabit spaces of prayer on and off line; of compassion as we extend practical acts of care. The impact of these gestures and their ability to be received are not lessoned because of physical distancing, but in a sense are amplified.

Not all of those things which have been amplified have been positive: the Church of England’s social media presence – where perhaps we are more focused on what we transmit that what we hear – has not always been attractive. The way in which we have debated the nature of sacred space, the iconography of church buildings, the place of the domestic realm has been revelatory of the tensions within the church.

Some of that has been about the relationship between the parochial and episcopal leadership; some has been about gender and power. We rushed to occupy spaces online as a ‘new thing’ without always learning from those in our disabled community who had established patterns of online church. Although we have a digital charter, our social media language revealed a preoccupation with our inner life which was not attractive.

In Wording a Radiance, Daniel W Hardy asked the question: ‘what is it that both attracts and limits the Church?’[7] We get distracted – and over-concerned with our inner life and meaning. Instead, he encourages us to ‘persist with our task in the world’.[8] The essential elements of this includes our liturgy as the means by which we are drawn deeper into the light of God; it includes opening up the potential of human life; it means relating to the world. Is our body language draining to be around or does it draw others to the fullness of God’s love, does it attract or repel?

It remains counterintuitive to be unable to embrace another person, or to clasp their hand. This is most painful at a funeral. Yet we are still called, somehow, to hold the grieving and to lend dignity to the sick or anxious. We make eye contact; we remain present; we listen; we wait with them; we hold the silences as well as the cries.

Perhaps in this we are re-learning or adopting the skills of those who staff telephone helplines such as the Samaritans where there is no touch in anguish, but there is a refusal to walk away.

Perhaps the constraints and limitations of our physical distancing makes us pay a little more attention to what we are seeing and hearing around us: as we undergo a Spirit-led radical re-education. As perhaps we notice those we have avoided; or rethink the substance of what it is we share. Perhaps in forgoing the frenetic nature of the peace, which is not always as welcoming and inclusive as we think, we have an opportunity to ponder what makes this sign different from a social handshake. Maybe in letting go some of our ways of being with each other, we actually see each for the first time.

Great realisations: the world we’ve found and the one we left behind

In his conclusion to Finding the Church, a rich exploration of our sacramental life and polity, Hardy asks ‘is the Church’s worship the site for common development of the social meaning of the gospel in and from all the situations in which people live?’[9] He challenges those in positions of leadership to call out from the Body of Christ the features of is distinctive and characteristic social meaning for the sake of fulfilling its missionary task: if the church fails to do this, there is the risk of a ‘social form of Gnosticism, a sectarian and controlled movement which possesses what are thorough to be the “secrets of enteral life” but only as secretes unintelligible except to initiates’.[10]

That challenge is as relevant to church having moved online as it was when we inhabited more conventional forms of physical and sacred space. We acknowledge that when we are meeting friends and family online, it is not the same as the immediacy and intimacy of bodily presence. Writing in The Observer on 7 June, Zoe Wanamaker reflects on theatre being filmed saying: ‘it becomes intangible, you can’t feel it, you can’t smell it, you can’t breathe it – it does not have the same effect on your body. [11]

For many, online church has been an opportunity to maintain spiritual and relational connections; feeling less alone and more visible. For others, it has been painful – perhaps echoing Wanamaker’s longing for what we can feel, smell and breathe. It has revealed a level of curiosity about worship – lowering the threshold of engage with a click rather than entering through a physical door. Yet for all that social media opens up access, it has within it its own barriers to participation and engagement: digital poverty is real and those without tablets or those relying on data contracts are unable to share worship online.

Online services will be a constant in our worshipping life. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses (Zoom perhaps fostering visible interaction and participation and the sharing of music/images; Facebook and YouTube allowing for pre-recorded material from a range of voices and participation in realtime/when convenient. Such worship is accessible to those for those for whom a physical building is inaccessible and those who are exploring faith. It will form part of a mixed-economy of our worshipping life – if small groups are, in due course, able to gather for a form of physically distanced, yet physically present, worship, holding larger communities together online remains important.

However, we ought to remain conscious of digital poverty – which is just one marker of the reality that lockdown is not a great equaliser; and that for some the experience is more isolating than for others due to a range of socio-economic factors. Digital poverty also runs in another direction: whilst churches have been entrepreneurial in doing what they can, there does exist a deficit of skills and digital “kit” which impacts on adaptability and sustainability.

Online worship, like traditional forms of worship, must not succumb to the kinds of gnosticism that Hardy warns us about if we come to see the digital as more than a pragmatic substitute for being with each other. Being online means we can ‘drop out’ of engagement; we don’t have to put up with each other. As Nicola Slee reflects in her book Sabbath, time spent gazing at a screen can reduce ‘our capacity for genuine mutual attentiveness’.[12]

In highlighting this, I do not dismiss the good effects of connecting with the spiritually curious and the housebound; nor the gift of continuing to be together – to see each other via zoom – when other forms of gathering are impossible. Yet, there is a risk that worshippers will drift away, finding themselves to be observers, getting out of the habit or struggling with the notion of spiritual communion online.

Conversely, the kind of metric we use to quantify attendance has been magnified as we count logins and likes. Do we still make space for the things we cannot so readily count? The metric of deepening faith at home; of the task of nurturing a community face-to-face (even via zoom) as they explore their vocation, the tasks entrusted to us and to them, which flows into a tangible body language of work and service in the world.

There is also the risk of a digital gnosticism that sits more lightly to the local and physically particular. This latter challenge reminds us of the importance of connecting the social meaning formed as we come before the holiness of God in worship and the living out of that social life day by day – as the Body of Christ lives and moves in the world. As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, our worlds have in a sense contracted; yet might this also be a time to enlarge our souls; a time to the kind of solidarity that knows and serves a particular neighbourhood.

One of the great realisations of the lockdown, and its economic and social impact, is the financial fragility of the church itself: we inhabit an ecclesial eco-system of radical interdependence which often goes unseen. From cathedrals losing income from visitors which has underpinned worship and mission, to parishes reliant on hall hire and cash collections and diocesan infrastructure and the disparity between those who have historic reserves or not. Difficult decisions will have to be made about buildings and deployment. Given that Covid-19 itself is not an equaliser, but rather something that has revealed social and economic disparities, the challenge to the institution is not allow our response to amplify those realities. Part of our strategic body language of love might be to include within our decision making processes equality and diversity impact studies.

The church as it emerges from lockdown will not return to the patterns we left behind on the Third Sunday of Lent. We will continue to make the most of the digital and online opportunities; our gatherings for public worship might be smaller; and the two will intersect. Our body language might be more humble – letting go of some of the trappings of status or position, and instead serving as seed beds of hope and connection or reconnection at a local level. We will need space to reflect on our organisational life – what have we communicated or transmitted, what might we need to repent of and where has new life emerged? How do we build trust between parochial and episcopal leadership at a time when difficult decisions have been made?

Part of the church’s body language as we emerge from lockdown might be to adopt a posture of receptivity; listening carefully to society. Our society will be shaken: by the reality of death and grieving apart; by the loss of livelihoods and trauma of separation; but the revelation of pre-existing disparities and injustices, including racism. The psychological fallout of the pandemic will be felt for sometime, along with the economic impact. There is a danger that the most vulnerable, and those who have worked on the frontline of health and social care, will continue to be at most risk. We know that the death rate of those within the black, asian and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately high. Part of our great realisation is too look at the way we deal with race and whiteness – racism and privilege – within the Body of Christ. Whose bodies do we not see or treat differently – when we are called to be flesh of one flesh?

Willie Jennings writes of this with theological imagination in his commentary on Acts: ‘Too often Christianity has bequeathed to many peoples a derogatory gaze of their own cultural ways… we cannot escape its [modern colonialism’s] legacies; but we can end its trajectories by asking ourselves, Who are the people hearts me that the Spirit is pressing me to get to know, come to appreciate, and ultimately join?’.[13] This presses us beyond assimilation or tolerance and exposes us to the divine touch of the Spirit.

A world where physical touch is limited, does not limit our capacity for this Spirit- led touch. The Body of Christ is a body of hope, but also a body where we are unsettled; even as we break bread we are reminded of betrayal; and as we remember that betrayal we are recalled. We have an opportunity to swim against a tide of whiteness and see the good and beautiful in other bodies. As Jennings puts it, reflecting on Timothy’s identity as a mulatto child, ‘no group of people is beyond the embrace of God, which is not a hypothetical or ephemeral embrace, but an  enfleshed embrace. Timothy is a Jew-Gentile-Christian. He is dangerous power born of the Spirit and desire’. [14]

How might our body language model something of the Christian hope? In lockdown world where, on the one hand, busyness has lost its allure but on another, work has become more demanding (and risky), can our ecclesial body/bodies offer to the world something of sabbath as resistance?[15] That resistance challenges anxiety, coercion and exclusivism, as well as the myth of multitasking. For the sabbath is not just a pause ‘it is an occasion for reimagining all social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity’.[16]

Part of that language might be a remembering that Covid has disrupted all that we have known as normal within our interactions. It is not normal to live through screens, without touch; it is not normal to be detached, and less able to read the nuance of our body language. In a short essay on the BBC website, Will Gompertz reflects on this through one of E. M. Forster’s less well known novels  The Machine Stops. It is prescient because it describes a world where people are isolated in their own homes, communicating through a pneumatic post/video interface which we might recognise as WhatsApp, Zoom or Skype; public gatherings have been abandoned and life continues in a detached way. One of the characters Kuno wants his mother Vashti to visit: ‘“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?” “I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome machine.”[17]

Conclusion

In a piece entitled ‘Regenerative Futures’, we’re reminded that Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the challenges presented by structural weaknesses in society and the economy, and I would add, the church.[18] These include questions of access and inequality, physical place/sacred space and the local and also navigating a digital world as embodied beings. We do not simply bounce back from a crisis like this; but we can adapt and respond. We need to embrace the complexity and plan to experiment; we need to explore the patterns of privilege and power that undermine our life together, drawing on multiple perspectives.

Whereas a centralised and hierarchical leadership can offer stability and enact large scale change, we also need responsive, context based leadership to help us make sense of what Covid-19 has revealed. One matrix that this paper uses is a matrix of collective sense-making, which identifies old and new practices which we might continue post-crisis. What did we start that was crisis specific, which will end; what did we start anew, which has promise for the future and can be amplified? What did we let go of during the crisis, which we recognise is not fit for purpose; what do we know we need to restart?

These questions may seem a long way for the exploration of body language with which we began, but our ability to adapt and imagine requires of us a humility in leadership which liberates energy through such collaborative conversations (at every level of our ecclesial life)[19].  Reimagining demands a receptive posture – formed in a community of prayer and guided by accountability. Receptivity takes us back to the Bossanyi window “Salvation”: there we see the telos of our body language, the blessing of all peoples; a movement away from oppression towards liberation; a Spirit-led embrace which brings strength and compassion, but which also gives dignity in the moment and hope for the future.

Revd Dr Julie Gittoes is vicar of St Mary’s and Christ Church, Hendon and describes herslef as ‘An Anglican priest & theologian who makes time for art, novels, film, politics, and good coffee.’ She has a blog and can also be found on Twitter. 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4 accessed 4 June 2020; all quotations taken from the film.

[2] A theme picked up in Pentecost sermons including my own at juliegittoes.blogspot.co.uk

[3] https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/15-may/comment/opinion/social-distancing-is-a-race-

issue accessed 5 June 2020.

[4] Church Times 15 May 2020.

[5] Images of the Bossanyi windows – and information about the symbolism within them – can be found at:

http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/bossanyl/4590809624 accessed 3 June 2020.

[6] This is something I reflected on in the Church Times: considering this lockdown as an opportunity to play close attention to scripture, to improvise on the Eucharist in our own lives, to see where the Spirit is leading in this scattered interval: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/17-april/comment/opinion/ why-i-am-fasting-from-the-feast

[7] Daniel W Hardy, Wording a Radiance: Parting Conversations on God and the Church (London: SCM Press, 2010), p. 106

[8] Hardy, Wording, p. 106.

[9] Daniel W. Hardy, Finding the Church (London: SCM Press, 2001), pp. 258-9.

[10] Hardy, Finding, p. 259.

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/jun/06/zoe-wanamaker-i-hate-communicating-virtually-

honestly-the-palaver Accessed 7 June 2020.

[12] Nicola Slee, Sabbath: the hidden heartbeat of our lives (London: DLT, 2019), p. 37

[13] Willie James Jennings, Acts (Kentucky, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2017), p. 88.

[14] Jennings, Acts, p. 153.

[15] A theme of Walter Brueggemann’s book of that title: Sabbath as Resistance: saying no to the culture of now (Louiseville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2017).

[16] Bruggemanm, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 45.

[17] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-52821993  accessed 6 June 2020.

[18] https://medium.com/rsa-journal/regenerative-futures-b245c74b4f27  accessed 4 June 2020

[19] With the retirement of Archbishop John Sentamu, the whiteness of the House of Bishops is stark.


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