Longing for a return to church

Zoom church is good but for Peter Crumpler, nothing can compare to the real thing (Photo: Unsplash/Sincerely Media)

I'm a massive fan of all that churches have been doing to go online during the lockdown.

Some have transformed their Sunday services with presenters, interviews and worship played out on split screens. Others have streamed services, with the congregation linked by Zoom to increase participation.

It's brilliant to see how much has been achieved and the large numbers of views being recorded.

Let's not forget the lower-tech solutions either. The Church of England's free Daily Hope phone line, aimed at people without access to online services, is proving a success.

And I've been impressed by the weekly 30-minute act of worship, broadcast simultaneously at 8am each Sunday by all 39 BBC local radio stations covering England, Jersey and Guernsey. The network, that reaches around 6.7 million adults, has produced a wide range of inspiring services from Anglican, Catholic, Salvation Army and other denominations during the lockdown.

But I realise, after yet another Zoom call or YouTube viewing, that the technology – wonderful though it is – is making me yearn increasingly for the real church experience.

A friend who has worked in TV for most of his life put it this way: "The technology gives us the chance to make connections in ways hitherto unimagined by churches. But they restrict most of the things that human communication really needs – nuanced observation, cross talk, back story context – and that's before the technical problems."

I'm a football fan, and for me watching matches on TV is a poor substitute for sitting in a packed stadium and experiencing the match with thousands of others. We join in the chanting and singing, in the ebb and flow of emotion as the match plays out, in the shared experience of being together in the moment.

The New Testament writer to the Hebrews talks of being "surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses" and I miss that experience of physically feeling part of something bigger.

One day someone will analyse the difference between watching a church service on a TV screen or engaging with it via a laptop or smartphone. As we sit in our ones and twos, are we leaning in to engage with the service, or leaning back to become a consumer, a critic?

As the weeks of lockdown progress, I realise increasingly all that I'm missing, all that I used to take for granted as a minister, or as a member of a congregation.

I'm missing being within a congregation, experiencing the response to the worship, the preaching and sharing of communion together.

I'm missing the contact between generations, as older people enjoy children being around. When I see an elderly member of our congregation talking to young parents about their new baby, I think of Anna and Simeon with Mary and Joseph when they brought baby Jesus to the temple.

I miss seeing people who have been friends for decades catching up on each other's news, hugging each other or shaking hands, sitting together over coffee.

I miss watching people and knowing from their body language how they are responding to the worship or detecting their mood. I miss the chance encounters that take place at the church door, or over a cuppa.

I miss churches being centres for their community, drawing people in for weddings, christenings and funerals, and hosting a range of local groups.

I love being able to connect with worship with all my senses – from smelling flowers in church to tasting the communion bread and wine, from 'sharing the peace' with the church family and receiving and giving a blessing with the laying on of hands, to hearing church bells sound out.

I love, too, that many people are experiencing God in places other than church, in their gardens or on exercise walks in the countryside. In Barbara Brown Taylor's beautiful 'An Altar in the World,' she explores how God can be experienced in the everyday. More people are doing just this during the lockdown.

The slow lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions means many churches will need to livestream their services as well as meet for worship with smaller congregations. Given how technology has made church more accessible to many more people, I wonder why we were not doing this long before.

But I yearn for the return, whenever that can be done, to a world where we can gather to worship, to praise, and safely to share life together. I pray that the day may come soon...

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former communications director for the CofE.