When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, presided at an Easter Eucharist from his kitchen table, many went to social media to complain that the Church of England was becoming too domesticated or private. Many respond with the question “does it matter?” John Hull perhaps answered that question in his seminal work on missiology published in 2014, a year before his death. His book, Towards the Prophetic Church: a study of Christian mission,[i] presents an enduring challenge to the church which speaks as loudly in the response to Covid-19 as at any other time.
Throughout Hull’s published works there is a thread leading to the conviction that the church desperately needs to recapture a “prophetic faith” drawing on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the prophetic ministry of Jesus.
For the prophets, faith was public (see for example Jeremiah 7.2). Yet, argues Hull, public faith has been privatised by the condition of modernity and imperialism (although we might want to argue this was happening before modernity). For the prophets, faith determined how to live in the public square, shown in their concern for life in community. In the mutual relationship formed in community there is the potential for justice and injustice. Given that God is just, God is found in justice so to have a right relationship with God, one needs right relationships in community which forms justice. We can only love God by loving each other.
Hull explores this using the spatial model of horizontal and vertical transcendence. Vertical transcendence – finding God solely through an individual relationship with God – is a privatised faith and offers little compulsion to live justly. Horizontal transcendence, on the other hand, suggests that the way to a right relationship with God is through our relationships with each other.
And this is where Hull’s work can speak to us living under the conditions of Covid-19 which has been described by Arundhati Roy as a portal through which we see injustices more clearly.[ii]
Firstly, Covid-19 made us more aware of relationships that we had painfully neglected until March this year. For example, our utter reliance on “key workers.” We quickly became aware of the injustices they faced given their roles often putting them on the “front line” at risk of Covid yet they also appeared to be economically expendable. Some have realised the extent of their “middle class cushion” with plentiful access to on-line resources, greater job security and a savings buffer. Further afield, we have seen how some countries don’t have the relatively vast resources of wealthy nations to tackle the virus. This gives us plenty to consider in our missiological response.
Yet Covid-19 gives us ecclesiological challenges too. How do we maintain relationships that enable horizontal transcendence when our gatherings are limited? Of course, we have all learned a great deal more since March about meeting together on-line. Crucial as it is, it isn’t the transcendent panacea. Not only do many people find on-line interactions good only to a certain extent, there are members of our congregations who become digitally marginalised. That isn’t because they won’t join in, it’s because they can’t. Not everyone has the resources to buy equipment or connections. For some people, the pandemic disruption is more than they can handle without having to learn a new language as well.
As important as it is to minimise the possibility of marginalisation, there is the question of what remote connectedness does to our rituals which depend on presence together and in turn the impact on the practice of our faith. Holy Communion is one example. Our celebration at Christ’s table is modelled on a presiding minister leading the people gathered in the Thanksgiving which includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ for us. It is a communal act envisaged for a time when the prospect of the congregation being unable to gather was unthinkable.
As unthinkable as it was, it has had to become thinkable in the last six months. Pragmatists amongst us have reignited the conversation over “on-line communion” as well as developing models such as “drive through” Holy Communion. These practical theological developments should always be encouraged but crucially not at the price of our faith retreating into a privatised relationship where it only matters to me and God.
[i] John M Hull, Towards the Prophetic Church: A study in Christian mission, (London: SCM, 2014)