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Thu 29 October 2020
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Reverend Joe Haward wonders whether churches and congregations can re-evaluate their role in the wake of lockdown, remote streaming, and the Coronavirus crisis

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Idols and Icons

The Western world has largely become unfamiliar with the meaning and depth of icons in their original purpose and place. Today, when we speak of icons, we might think of a national sporting hero, or a social media sensation. Yet the traditional icon of the Eastern Christian world was never something that represented the realities of fame of this world, rather, it acted as a window into another reality that helped make sense of this one.

Whereas icons once served as an icon into another reality that helped shape our understanding, for many of us in the West that has been replaced by consumerism and its reality. Today, if we seek to be transported into another world we will probably turn to Netflix rather than the altar and icons of a church building. The spectacle of worship today is of production and consumption, an insatiable economic culture of the late modern West. “Our sacred writ is advertising,” declares David Bentley Hart, “our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice.”

In many ways, we have been captivated by the spectacle of beings rather than ask what it means to be human beings. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once put it, we cannot simply choose any action or image from the “human and non-human environment and still expect to ‘make sense’.”


Streaming Congregations

Within this time of lockdown, religious communities have found all that they have understood as to what it means to be humans in community disrupted.

In classical theistic traditions, human beings and finite reality are limited expressions of the Divine. In Sufi tradition, for example, God is al-Haqq, the ‘Reality’ that underlies everything. The gathering together of religious communities, then, is to worship that reality and find ways of expressing that reality within their communities, to the world around them.

There is, then, something curious and counter-intuitive to the idea of an online community within, for instance, Christian thought and practice. As churches began to grapple with the prospect of streaming services there was an opportunity for them to ask whether such services were actually appropriate for them. Lockdown gave the church a window, as icons have in the past, to ask what was its purpose and place in the world.

For well over forty years the Western church has battled the steady decline of its numbers, presence, and influence within contemporary culture. The result of such decline has often meant many churches have tried to be ‘relevant’, seeking to have a style that reflects modern society. Yet despite all its efforts, many people have completely lost faith in institutional Christianity. Lockdown offered an opportunity for deep and searching questions as to whether style has never been the problem; perhaps the message is what actually needs to be addressed?

It may be tempting for online church services to be more like Netflix, a source of escapism and entertainment, yet such temptations will do little to help human societies ‘make sense’.


McDonaldisation of Churches

So much of our contemporary discourse is rooted in rivalry, and certainly many Christian churches are trying to compete with a culture that has switched off from institutional religion and switched on to materialism and personal choice. But that is not to say that our society has switched off from the ideas that underpin the very heart of the major theistic faiths.

In all the major theistic traditions, God is not some kind of powerful being, ‘out there’ somewhere, floating in the great beyond. Rather, God is thought to be the ground of all reality. But equally, these same traditions have always erred on the side of caution when speaking of God, preferring to speak at best by analogy, and even then speaking of what God is not: in Hinduism this is “neti, neti” (“not this, not this”), Christianity it is “apophatic”, and in Islam it is “lahoot salbi” (“negative theology”). Mystery has a long tradition within human communities, and such mystery is worked out within the act of meeting together. 

The role, then, of religious communities, is not to have all the answers, but to offer a way of seeing the world and our humanity that ‘make sense’ in spite of that mystery, through the act of being together, seeing the strangeness of the world, a complexity that pure materialism fails to fully answer. Such clarity should also make us aware of injustice and the need to fight it, protect the weak, and hold the powerful to account.  They are the gatherings that matter beyond all else.

These ideas that have so often been lost in the ‘Mcdonaldisation’ of the church.

When religious communities (in my case Christian communities) pursue entertainment, and a form of self-help emotional massaging, whether online or in-person, then that kind of gathering becomes pointless. Where it should be a voice calling out in the wilderness, highlighting injustice, it offers paranoid versions of reality, utopianism, a masking of truth, a crowd more willing to shout “crucify!”   

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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