Just Like the Early Church? The Relevance of Place in a Time of Isolation

I’ve been rather nonplussed about staying home. It’s given me time to take up long delayed tasks around the house, more time for reading and writing, and keeping up with pastoral care as much as possible. The tension I expected my limited real-life square meterage to create has played itself out on the compressed world of my computer screen instead. I admit to a bit of angst provoked by our new decontextualized pixelated worlds. Scroll, scroll, scroll your page down the liturgical stream.

Since day one of the lockdown I’ve had mixed feelings about some of the of Corona based liturgical conversations. The most recent being the comments of the German Roman Catholic bishop Heiner Wilmer. Depending upon the source, in many cases the rap sheet is pretty expected; Insisting upon the spiritual immaturity of Christians desperate for sacraments, or priests who would dare celebrate Holy Communion “on their own”, or via social media for the parish (a debate in my own deanery with its hotmess of eucharistic theologies).

Priest distributing the Eucharist in church parking lot. USA.

In this brave new world we should all be spiritual ubermensch the line goes, retrograde 19th century Diechmanesque protestants with our domestic surrounds and a bible. Otherworldly contented. There’s real spirituality! Fast from the sacraments! Learn to pray in a more fundamental way, we are told. Which incidentally, I find highly ironic on the heels of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. So much for that “source and summit” thing, and apparently the very good job the churches have done growing such a level of spiritual expectation that people now practically rebel at the idea of living without the Eucharist – given that decades ago they wouldn’t even bother. I’ve found such chatter to be an utterly miserable Christian response in a desperate time of need. The 30day snooze option on FB has helped keep my quarantined spirituality in a healthy place. It seems to me now is not the time to be correcting people’s needs or intuitive spiritual responses. If that ever has a time. 

Understandably, many of these developments and discussions are trying to make lemonade out of COVID’s lemons. Trying to make sense of our surreal circumstances and the new social behaviours they are forcing upon us and our worship. Hence, my social feeds have had not a few meme’s extolling connecting with God free of the shackles of the church building, those burdensome carbuncles of our grandparent’s misplaced faith. You and God in the car – it’s really just the same, if not preferable, right? We’re free to be the real church now! Of course we all grant that, yes, the grace and love of God is not strictly limited to a place, even to sacraments, or the visible church. As always, no one means this when trying to articulate a foundational role for sacramentality.  But some of our attempts to make sense of worship in exile, and how we speak about it, are leading to some questionable, if not out-rightly unhelpful pronouncements and actions. A theological overplay of the hand, or more likely, fumble.

The poor Church of England bishops have been one case in point. Not an easy time for any leadership, no mistake about it. The bishops insisted that churches be closed and locked, even to the clergy – though the government does not require the latter. Outside the ranks of professional chaplains clergy are not to enter homes or hospitals. It’s all created a bit of a ruckus with priests and pastors. Clergy are told to set the example for society and remain in their homes and help their people pray as much as possible. Most were dealing. But then the clinker came at Easter when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, opined during an interview that social shutdown was a wonderful opportunity because we can learn to pray at home and be “just like the early church”. Welby has apparently never met Bradshaw.

Now my tone above is a bit (but just a bit) tongue-in-cheek to form a foil, because I actually see something quite interesting unfolding in the how-do-we-do-worship back and forth. Following Welby’s, “just like the early church” pronouncement I was involved in a rather thoughtful and constructive online dialogue. A colleague at St. Benet’s in London, the Rev. Dr. Peter Anthony questioned if what is happening by necessity is actually like worship in the early church. A few comments by myself and Dr. Andrew McGowan of Yale Divinity combined with the insights of Fr. Peter led to a YouTube commentary.

YouTube Link – House Churches in the Early Church

The premise being, worship or prayer currently happening now in our homes may be necessary and good, but it is certainly not equal to worship in the early church, nor a preferable way of being church.  Beyond any expectations, the video made for the parish has now registered more than 3500+ views on YouTube worldwide. References in the video to my research on sacred space have seen a record number of readers of a past article, Early Christian Perceptions of Sacred Space. Evangelical churches in the middle of Africa who are social distancing have reached out to me speaking of their own unease and sadness at not being able to enter church buildings. Beyond the memes mocking historic patterns of worship or imprecise statements of church leaders, I have found numerous family, friends, colleagues, and parishioners, saying the same thing to me, especially over Easter: they miss worshiping together, and they specifically miss worshiping in their buildings. 

Church service on Zoom. UK.

It seems to me these heartfelt comments are not simply people of faith feeling out of sorts while normal ways of doing things are currently out of bounds. They are saying the ‘normal’ way of doing things has an authenticity and value that perhaps they have only until now been passively aware of. Quite a few persons have told me they have cried while participating in online worship. Not because the worship moved them, but because of its inadequacy. And here I think the lesson begins to emerge. When we say we miss people even in our online worship, it is a missing of the experience of being embodied, and the subterfuge of the virtual seduction that we have rejoiced in for years. Eloquent books such as Michael Harris’s The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We Have Lost in a World of Constant Connection have been warning of the quick drift into the illusion of connection via social media. Now people are learning firsthand that virtual reality is insufficient, no reality at all. It is at best a tool, but in reality a hollow substitute for presence. It’s not that people are not together – Zoom and FB worship services abound. With the flood of online services one can see a multitude of Sunday acquaintances and message greetings. At the Sursum Corda send up icons of hearts and praying hands. Helen and Louise can even gossip to one another during the service as usual using the private chat setting. But it is not the same. We are not physically together, we are short circuited in our embodiment.

A worshipper prays in front of the closed entrance of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem’s Old city due to the coronavirus pandemic, on March 25, 2020.

The extension of this insufficiency is the lament for the loss of our buildings that I am hearing – What is responsible for the voracious uptake of the presentation on house churches in antiquity. In our time of disembodiment, rather than feeling a praise song in the car is actually equal to the worship of God by a congregation in a sacred space, the reaction is the opposite. This, it seems to me, is a logical corollary to missing worship in person, for embodied worship is premised upon our experience of the spatial in which church buildings have pride of place for believers; There is sadness and dislocation at not being able to “enter our church”.  We are experiencing the opposite of emplacement, radical isolation on the heels of virtual death in hospital; Anonymous passing in a tangle of tubes, indifferent white walls, and absent loved ones streamed in. Now, maybe homes help to ground our worship in this moment. But this assumes one actually has a ‘home’. Even then it is not always so easy to find God in the domestic as the memes and ecclesial commentary suppose. I reach out to a hoarder who is trapped in her home without space for God. It is hell for her and her husband. I reach out to the woman in an abusive relationship whose home is a place of stress and violence. I reach out to a large immigrant family whose small apartment is a prison. They all miss their church buildings. The purported domestic bliss of a house church is the fantasy of the white and well-off.

But the spoken longing for sacred space gives me hope that the sadness provoked by our architectural isolation is a turning point and the beginning of the (re)learning of the sacramentality of space. Will we now accept the lessons of Heidegger, Patočka, Bachelard, and Christian Norberg-Schulz, that we come into being only through space, place, and architecture? We are literally constructed of space. And it is by being in-formed that we come to know ourselves and God. Perhaps we have lived oblivious to this fact, but perhaps we are now feeling these truths. And if we are lucky, we will see that through our oblivious or obstinate belief in the virtual, the refusal to be emplaced has led us to a decrepit existence. Our sacramental buildings, and our longing for them, are the last bastion holding out against the disenchantment and trashing of place. A long gathering storm that is lashing humanity. 

Suburban sprawl. Australia.

Jane Holtz Kay recounts in her Asphalt Nation how the early 20th century search for personal freedom with the car began the destruction of communal dwelling and construction of social isolation through individualism expressed in new urban planning that prioritized cars instead of people. As car culture expanded the natural environment became something to get out of the way of the motorway – a place not to be lived, but explored unattached, polluting it with signs, exhaust, and fast food Styrofoam. 

A view from Westminster Abbey. London.

Roughly at the same time came the overthrow of the City Beautiful architectural movement, whose core challenge was social solidarity through green spaces and craftsmanship, in favor of progress represented in industrial, inexpensive materials. Buildings were no longer about human occupants but became aloof objects unto themselves. Inhospitable, obtuse out of scale walls of glass, concrete and steel. Certainly in the US eminently livable urban and town fabrics were substantially altered with the bulldozer leaving concrete deserts as a hallmark of supposed improved human dwelling and progress.  But as social historian Robert Archibald has written “most often what we call progress is just change” (A Place to Remember, 1999: 65). 

Sam’s Club store abandoned as another store is built in a new development. USA.

The final injury to our sense of place is unfolding today in what is called the geography of nowhere.  Here the leveling effect of globalized capitalism erases cultural and environmental differences. Our worlds are now demarcated by ‘boxed’ architecture and dwellings – homogenous built muck, that can be dropped down in record time in an American field, or Saudi desert. Walmart and IKEA are the standards of our architectural worlds. Upscaling makes no difference. Starchitects produce ever taller buildings whose placement makes no difference. Central Paris, London, or Beijing, it’s all the same, and the building is the same. In this flat world we have been trained to either be enamored with, or unconscious of, blah. And up till now the cultural seduction of car-diven ease and the liquidification of place for the capital it can produce has offended very few – other than we are all haunted by the fact that our town or city “just isn’t what it used to be”. Yet we make no amendments to our behaviour, on our street or in our nation, bargaining that surely our personal choices are not the cause of all of this.   

Urban decay. Harlem, New York.
Homes built along a river covered in plastic waste. India.

So perhaps that we are now having to shelter-in-place in our non-placed worlds the trauma of being cut off is more pronounced. We must live someplace after all. But in modernity we’ve built a world pretending this is not the case. It seems to me, therefore, that the longing for our church buildings simply highlights the fact of what we’ve been negating for decades; Space is sacramental, a place of encounter, and if one place does not matter, well then, no place matters. And we are lost, without location physically or morally.  We shouldn’t be astounded, therefore, to look out and find a trashed earth, or be shocked at rivers of plastic in India, or trash islands the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific.  We shouldn’t be surprised by cardboard shanty towns barely sheltering millions, urban decay, felled rain forests, or abandoned medieval hillside villages.

 I am hopeful that our global time-out insisted upon by mother nature is opening hearts and shaping new visions in all kinds of fields of human thinking and action. I am hopeful that a new appreciation of the places of our existence, churches, homes, towns, nature itself, is being awakened – and that when we emerge from our sequestration into refound freedom we tack in a new direction. I don’t think it will be out of place when the time comes to re-inhabit our churches to celebrate a special liturgy of thanksgiving, not only for our embodied presence one to another as ecclesia, but also for our places of spiritual dwelling as ecclesia. May we take new mindful possession of our sacred spaces, those in which we worship, and those in which we are simply pilgrim guests. 


      1. Having met Bradshaw, whose teaching informed my formation-your comment made me laugh out loud. Thanks for your remarks on this ‘hotmess’ of virtual or real observance James.

  1. I love a lot of what you are saying here, James. I have to offer an addendum, however, regarding the home. Perhaps this is a woman’s perspective, though I’ve known men to feel this too: I think that for many people there is a sense of “emplacement” and sacredness in the home. The quality of care that people put into creating and maintaining living spaces in which they and their families are nurtured and in which everyday life and its blessings are shared is often just stupendous. Even very small and cramped spaces, poor and inadequate on many grounds, can be dear to someone because they are home, and especially when they are a place of love; we remember them and long for them when exiled from them. Consider how refugees and the incarcerated experience loss of home. We all know some variety of the feeling of homesickness. I suspect that the sense of loss of the sacred space where we worship is related to this original emplacement known in childhood, precisely because of what you say: “If one place does not matter, no place matters.” But perhaps this goes both ways: when we value our home, the capacity and willingness to value our church spaces also rises.

    1. Yes, I hear what you are saying Rita. I think many have a good experience of ‘home’, I think many do not. Obviously home has a fundamental role in our lives or Gaston Bachelard’s La Poétique de l’Espace wouldn’t have had the impact it did I think. That said, I do not think the easy substitution being proposed in some quarters is adequate to express the nature of worship, even if a necessary limitation at this time. In the end, personally I have always loved my homes, and they were ‘homes’ to me, but in my spiritual life these places were no substitute for many a church building and liturgy that put me in the presence of God and transformed me.

  2. It is beneficial, obviously, to have a shared spiritual, liturgical space where believers can feel at home with familiar icons, candles, etc. I actually agree with the DOJ position regarding the state’s arbitrary criteria for making determination about “essential services”. Cannabis yes .churches no? Etc. The overreach of authorities ticketing people at worship services in their cars was pretty shocking and thank God some in the judiciary slammed that absurd form of policing.

    A more sensible approach is creating parameters around whether your service can operate safely …e.g. social distancing and so on. That seems more sensible. My brother attended Divine Liturgy and all the people in the Church (only five including the celebrant) self communicated so there was always opportunity for distance.

  3. The church is forced to emigrate to the social media. Ministers of religion should not be perceived as taking a holiday now, but as searching the Scriptures diligently looking for a word of insight and encouragement. They should not be shy about sharing their own disorientation or demoralization or fear.

    In the Old Testament people would see the pandemic as the wrath of God; “For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh… Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you” (Ps 90), and see the whole book of Lamentations.

    This is a consoling idea in fact, for it links our situation with divine concern.

    The basic Christian message is one of compassion and solidarity, resisting the “every man for himself” mentality.

  4. Space is certainly spiritual, to the extent that spirituality is about meaning and connection. But those meanings are not all benign. Neither home nor church-building is exempt from connoting, to some, exclusion or abuse. That we find we meet God in a church-building might mean it’s a sacrament, or it might mean it’s a totem of our tribe. I applaud the attempt to build a theology of place… but we need to do more than simply acknowledge its importance. We also need to consider what values are embedded in place, and thus what story of sin, repentance and redemption a place draws us into.

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