IN 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote these words:
O sweeter than the marriage feast
Tis sweeter far to me
To walk together to the kirk
In a goodly company.
This verse, which also become a popular hymn, is taken from that strange gothic masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It expresses a profound truth, that for hundreds of years people have walked together to the kirk, the church, the chapel, the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the meeting house, to worship their God in a goodly company.
Until now when, if they walk to church at all, it is in an isolated household ‘bubble’. The services when they get there are hedged about with so many rules on numbers, singing, social distancing and mask-wearing that large numbers of former churchgoers have decided it is hardly worth bothering to go at all. Whatever going to church once meant – and the spirit of community was at the heart of it – has been lost, perhaps for ever.
Oxford, where I live, has many magnificent churches and cathedrals, some dating back to the eleventh century, and although most are now open, up to a point, they are nowhere near back to what they were before lockdown. This is the latest notice from Christchurch, where once visitors flocked from all over the world to hear evensong:
Please note that the Cathedral has taken many steps to ensure it is COVID secure, including the introduction of ticketing to many services. You must have a ticket in order to attend this event [evensong]. Unfortunately we will not be able to accommodate those who arrive without a ticket. Please help keep the Cathedral safe for all by following the instructions of cathedral staff, remaining in your household group and leaving promptly after the service has finished. Do not attend if you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or are awaiting the result of a test for COVID-19.
Whilst we will endeavour to make sure this event runs we must comply with all local, national and church guidelines, as such we may have to cancel or alter this event at short notice.
This is hardly a joyous welcome to all, is it?
Indeed, church services as we once knew them may never come back. The Church of England’s website says that many congregations will continue to stream services and meet online, even if and when all restrictions end. The ‘goodly company’ of old will decline into a few stragglers.
Other faiths may have got so used to holding online services that they may never find the resolve to organise and hold large gatherings again. Online will, if we are not careful, become a way of life and everything will be virtual, not real.
In the past, religions prevailed against impossible odds, faith moved mountains. Early Christians risked being burned at the stake or thrown to the lions. Not even the most terrible persecutions would shake their faith, and Christianity became the world’s most successful religion, founded on the blood of its martyrs.
They would certainly not have let a little thing like a virus from which more than 99 per cent of people recover put them off meeting to worship their God.
In Soviet Russia, Christians were persecuted and many places of worship were destroyed. Did religion die away? It did not. People met secretly in each other’s homes, often putting themselves in great danger. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russian churches are full again thanks to the brave believers who kept the faith alive.
But here, at a time when the comfort of religion is needed more than ever, where are the religious leaders telling us to take no notice of lockdowns and distancing and instead enjoining us to hold hands, come close, worship in goodly numbers and fight the good fight with all our might?
They are nowhere. They are in retreat. Instead of showing the courage of their founding fathers, they have become craven, fearful and timid. Their swords remain sleeping in their hands.
Throughout the ages, rites of passage such as weddings, funerals and baptisms have been celebrated or marked publicly with a religious service. In more recent times, humanist services have come in for non-believers but the sentiment is the same: people are gathering to commemorate an important life event with each other. Now, this is not happening and such events are going unmarked.
Recently two long-time friends of mine got married. They had hoped for a blessing in Canterbury Cathedral but this was delayed and delayed until in the end they felt they couldn’t wait any longer. They married in a register office with just two witnesses and no celebration, no fuss, no cake, nothing to make the day special in any way. Some people have said they welcome smaller weddings. Maybe they do, but that’s not the point. The choice has been taken away.
This scenario reached its nadir with the pathetic funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. After 73 years of service to the sovereign and the state, and at nearly a hundred years of age, he if anybody should have been given a full state funeral. Instead, selected members of the royal family shuffled along in black crow-like masks, and the poor old Queen had to sit on her own with no member of her family near. The only singing came from six socially-distanced members of a choir. Fashion writers raved over the elegance of the Duchess of Cambridge’s outfit and not one drew attention to the fact that it was ruined by her black mask. In fact, masks have become a fashion statement, though on anybody apart from hospital theatre staff they look ridiculous.
Jesus himself was hardly the gentle, meek and mild saviour of popular myth. Not only did he overturn the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he defied both the Jewish and Roman authorities – and paid the ultimate price – to establish his new world order. If all the faiths banded together and as one declared that they would ignore the Covid regulations that threaten to destroy them, they would form a mighty army which could, as in the past, move mountains.