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The pandemic has given us all pause to reflect on the meaning and value of a great many things we took for granted. Chief among these for Christians should be the Eucharist, specifically, how it guides us to do life with our most vulnerable neighbours and forms us into citizens of heaven capable of reframing earthly political economies toward the common good.
Like many Christians in BC, I have been dismayed and angered by the lack of scientific data brought forward by our provincial government to justify why they’ve closed churches but not, for instance, grocery stores.
However, unlike many Christians, I think the government is being perfectly logical to disallow in-person worship while at the same time encouraging church buildings to be used for soup kitchens.
In fact, I think most Protestants (and some Catholics who forget their heritage) share the government’s underlying assumptions about the nature of faith and its relationship to the common good. It’s just that churches use this logic to elevate private belief as essential, whereas the government uses it to elevate public goods and services as essential.
Though they disagree about which side of this dichotomy is more important, they nevertheless agree it is a dichotomy.
In this view, churches are closed groups concerned primarily for the spiritual health of their members; whereas the government caretakes an open society with concern for everyone’s physical health, material prosperity, legal equality and social peace.
Churches might or might not run a soup kitchen, depending on how they prioritize various ‘ministry and outreach’ options, but charitable food programs are definitely not worship: faith must be distinguished from works.
If faith is essentially an interior reality for individuals, what then is the real harm to faith when church buildings are closed temporarily during a pandemic? After all, as we often say, “The church is not the building; the church is the people.” The people don’t need to be gathered physically, they can get their spiritual work done virtually.
Faith can be duly exercised in the privacy of my home, in my prayer closet, if need be. Sure, we miss being face-to-face with friends, but so does my aunt’s bridge club. We’ve learned that we can sing hymns, listen to sermons and pray through live-streamed internet services.
It might not be the same as doing these things together in the flesh – just like being In Rogers Arena for the Stanley Cup finals is different from watching it on TV – but at least we can sit in more comfortable chairs and drink our preferred morning beverage made properly. We can even channel surf to find better worship bands and preachers at a time more convenient than Sunday morning.
Many pastors are reporting they are seeing more people participate online now than they ever did in person, even in Bible studies and morning devotionals. It’s not just that parishioners are showing up more, or that shut-ins can now join the service. Completely new faces are tuning in, some from the other side of the planet!
Still other pastors, doubling down on the ‘church is not the building’ sentiment, are loving how the forced closure is requiring parishioners to consider freshly how ‘being the church’ translates to daily life in their neighbourhoods.
So I’ll not deny there is an upside to the government’s ban on in-person worship. And I’ll confess I don’t miss even a little bit in-person worship as it is typically practiced: I see no appreciable theological difference between ‘participating’ from the pew versus from my couch.
Yet there remains one worship practice that simply cannot be done over the internet, and I am desperate for it: the Eucharist. I cannot give or receive the Lord’s Supper virtually. I can consume a Sunday service or Bible study just fine over-the-air, but not the body and blood of Christ.
Far more than merely a moment for penitential reflection, the Eucharist is an act of thanksgiving around which the Church has from her beginning been formed for her vocation, reconstituting a room full of individuals into a singularly diverse Body of Christ capable of articulating a new, profounder way of being not only family but a public.
The household of God is the foretaste of the Kingdom of God. William Cavanaugh neatly summarizes this point and what I take to be the overarching concern of CityGate’s Creating Conversation editorial series:
In Greek usage, ekklesia names the assembly of those with citizens rights in a given polis [city]. In calling itself ekklesia, the church was identifying itself as fully public, refusing the available language for private associations (koinon or collegium).
The church was not gathered like a koinon around particular interests, but was concerned with the interests of the whole city, because it was the witness of God’s activity in history.
At the same time, the church was not simply another polis; instead, it was an anticipation of the heavenly city on earth, in a way that complexified the bipolar calculus of public and private (Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church, p. 43).
Sharing a meal with each other in memory of and in the fashion of the Bread and Water of Life incarnates a Bible full of economic and political themes to challenge the false dichotomies currently governing the church externally and internally. To celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly is to take our worship public for – and as – the common good.
The same reality that dictates we can only feed each other the Eucharist in-person, also dictates that feeding masses of poor people requires publicly accessible space. To exchange food, bodies must gather. Which is why our governments are newly aware of how vital our church buildings have long been for charitable food programs (some things you don’t miss until they’re gone) and are eager not only to exempt church closures for such programs but to recruit more to launch.
Yet the Eucharist is why we need to be exceedingly wary not to supply what our governments desire – cheap nutrition for people in crisis, efficiencies of scale that leverage volunteer-run rent-free soup kitchens to feed the most for the least.
This is the social service model of liberal (small ‘l’) democracy wherein charity is a mode of the market. Surplus and past-due-date food stuffs are transferred to ‘banks,’ neighbours are turned into ‘clients’ and the social divisions of purchasing power continue to be neatly delineated, according to which side of the serving tables you are standing on. Nothing could be further from the covenanted kinship and mutuality of the communion table.
The danger to our faith is not that our culture and governments want increasingly to lock out religion, but rather that they want to harness it. Recognizing the economic and social value of our properties and people, they understandably are eager to enlist us in helping to solve intractable problems like homelessness and food insecurity.
The price of admittance to the public square, though, is that we agree to abide by the social contract to conduct ourselves like any other ‘charitable sector’ actor, that we leave our private faith commitments at home, that the Eucharist has, at best, only an indirect and mute influence on how churches make food available to others.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas uses conservative icon George Will get to the root of why. Although they’re speaking about the American context, the philosophical history applies equally to Canada, especially as we’ve thrown off the British colonial heritage (and in Quebec the Roman Catholic Church) since the 1960s onward in a headlong rush to secularization.
The founders of the American republic [says Will]:
. . . wished to tame and domesticate religious passions of the sort that convulsed Europe [in centuries of war]. They aimed to do so not by establishing religion, but by establishing a commercial republic – capitalism. They aimed to submerge people’s turbulent energies in self-interested pursuit of material comforts. . . . [Thomas Jefferson] held that ‘operations of the mind’ are not subject to legal coercion, but that ‘acts of the body’ are. Mere belief, said Jefferson, in one god or 20, neither picks one’s pockets nor breaks one’s legs.
As Will explains it, Jefferson’s distinction between conduct and mere belief:
. . . rests on [John] Locke’s principle . . . that religion can be useful or can be disruptive, but its truth cannot be established by reason. Hence Americans would not ‘establish’ religion. Rather, by guaranteeing free exercise of religions, they would make religions private and subordinate. . . . This means that “religion is to be perfectly free as long as it is perfectly private – mere belief – but it must bend to the political will (law) as regards conduct (In Good Company: The Church as Polis, p. 200).
Our culture and governments bracket out religion from the public square precisely because it is seen as a clear and present danger to civic peace and the common good. Whatever contributions faith communities can make to the common good must be given by abstracting a more general humane motivation out of our particular doctrines and practices, and then working out that generic motive through a secularized format.
The problem, as Hauerwas often puts it, is that “The church doesn’t have a social ethic, it is a social ethic.”
If we’re going to serve the common good with integrity, we have to be wholly who we are. We can’t be one way at ‘home’ in the sanctuary on Sunday sharing the Lord’s Supper with each other, and another way in ‘public’ in the church hall on Tuesday afternoon sharing the Lord’s providence with strangers-becoming-friends.
And the way we are in our ‘place of worship’ (to use the language of municipal zoning bylaws) is the way we should be in our ‘place of residence,’ because both are God’s houses.
So: don’t acquiesce to governmental pressure to carry out food charity for ‘people in need’; do extend Eucharistic mutuality to neighbours in whom God is visiting you (Matthew 25). Don’t tell our health authorities and politicians to “stuff it.” Do invite them to come stuff their faces with you. (And really, what politician can resist a public barbecue – socially distanced of course.)
This takes us beyond temporary emergency response and physical need. To be sure, these are real and pressing. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 10 British Columbians couldn’t afford enough proper nutrition. Since the pandemic started, that number has doubled. Before the pandemic, the majority of free food programs available in the Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver’s downtown core were conducted by or in churches.
As a result of the pandemic, a little more than half of these church-based programs shut down, and many haven’t yet re-opened, even though they are expressly exempted from the closure regulations and strong COVID-19 protocols have been developed to make them safe.
Those that remained open or have re-opened are carrying an enormous amount of responsibility, which is growing month by month as more people come to them.
But the Eucharist is God giving us our daily bread and forgiving us our debts, not emergency rations and debt deferral during a catastrophe. Every congregation should be sharing meals with the poor (and the rest of the public) as a matter of routine, regardless of COVID-19.
Luke-Acts makes clear that sharing meals was Jesus’s and the early church’s standard operating procedure for mission. Doing life with the poor – and challenging the rich to join us – is part of every Christian’s baptismal gifting, every church’s vocation. It is the heart of true worship!
Perhaps no biblical text says it more poetically, with more challenge or more promise, than Isaiah 58. Our Lord launched his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61, the echo of this passage. The Israelites who had returned from exile were earnestly praying for God to deliver them from political oppression by non-believers, so that they could continue restoring the Land to its former glory.
Listen well to God’s reply. Here is the Church’s path to flourishing in our post-Christian society: [from the NIV, with my own more literal translations in brackets]:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and [you shall] break every yoke?
7 Is it not to [break your bread] with the hungry
and to [bring into your house] the poor wanderer —
when you see the naked, to [cover/conceal] them,
and not to [conceal yourself] from your own flesh and blood?
. . . If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you [offer your self] to the hungry
and [the self of] the oppressed you [fill-to-overflowing],
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will [fill-to-overflowing] your [desires] in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Jonathan Bird is a Church Relations Specialist for Union Gospel Mission, where he helps Christian congregations in the Lower Mainland to recognize and respond holistically to poverty, homelessness, and addiction in their neighbourhoods with theological grounding, sustainable best practices, and collaborative frameworks.”
Brilliantly theological and thoughtful. Typical of Jonathan Bird.
Refreshing. Bird breaks open our concepts of Eucharist like a fresh loaf of bread. Mmm, smells heavenly.
Appreciate Jonathan’s learned reflections; he has weathered many a storm, too.
I take exception to the formula that the church, any church, is a social ethic. To be sure, church members and adherents, and even guests practice some level and form of an ethic (mutual respect, honesty, empathy, sharing of passionate concerns, etc.).
But it is hardly a social ethic beyond just itself if intentional efforts are not made to develop strategies of justice-making and structures of justice to sustain. Hence the church, any church or faith-based network – that the presently-latent Streams of Justice creatively represented – are challenged to do justice, love kindness and work humbly with thy God by way of organizing both within and beyond itself.
The Christian faith is more, surely, that an “interior” phenomenon; it is every bit as much a part of community: locally, regionally, nationally and globally.