The Rev Dr Michael Hull’s reflections

Why I welcome a return to our church buildings

The Rev Dr Michael Hull, since 2015 Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s and Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute, reflects on the opportunity presented to return to his church for prayer.

We can pray at any time and in any place, writes Rev Dr Hull. St Paul reminds us to pray without ceasing and to give thanks to God in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5.16). God has made everything and is present everywhere. The Covid-19 pandemic, though, has limited our options, particularly in terms of communal prayer in our churches. Private prayer – turning our minds and hearts to God, reading Holy Scripture, using the Prayer Book or availing ourselves to online services – has become the order of the day.

Now, with the easing of restrictions, we can go back to our churches for private prayer. I can’t wait. Although there’s nothing lacking in prayer at home or outdoors, there’s nothing quite like praying in our churches, even without services, because we’re never alone in a church. A church is never ‘my space’; a church is always ‘our space’. As beautiful as my home may be, as magnificent as the great outdoors are, a church isn’t just a building. Every church is purpose-built by us, the people of God, to God’s glory and for worship. When we can’t get together in church, the presence of our God and of God’s people still abides there uniquely.

I once heard a moving story about a church’s restoration. Because of a generous and unexpected legacy, a congregation had more than enough money to do up their old tattered church, from a radiant-heating system below the floor to a new roof. Everything was to be replaced or redone – except the pews. The members were reluctant to refashion them. You see, the pews were original to the church. They were well-worn with time, even threadbare in places. The nicks and the chips, the lumps and the bumps, the scratches and the scrapes had all been made by their forebears in faith who, by their rising to sing and to praise, by their sitting to listen and to reflect, and by their worshiping generation after generation, had weathered those pews with their baptisms and funerals, Morning and Evening Prayers and innumerable services throughout the years. The pews, at least for this congregation, stood as a reminder that when one prayed in them, one was part of their Christian community – past, present and future.

As the Covid-19 pandemic wanes and we are allowed back in our churches for private prayer, I am so glad to be back. It’s not because God’s presence is lacking elsewhere, but because God’s presence is so tactile there, akin to Jesus’ Incarnation. I am in my weakness a wee bit like Doubting Thomas in so far as I want to see and to feel (John 20.24–27). I can’t wait to slide into a familiar pew. I can’t wait to pray and to give thanks, even in an empty church, confident that when I do, I’ll not be alone but with God and God’s people.

‘Without Sunday, we cannot go on’

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull, explores our desire to gather on Sundays for worship, even though church buildings have been closed since March.

“Christians all over the world have gone to extraordinary lengths to gather online on Sunday during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Scottish Episcopal Church is no exception with online worship every Sunday. Recently, with the Scottish Government’s Coronavirus framework for decision making, we see a way forward in which restrictions may ease so as to allow us to gather together again in our churches on Sunday, and we rejoice in that. But, why is gathering on Sunday – online or onsite – so important to us?

“Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. The first Christians, largely having come from the Jewish people, were used to worshipping God on Saturdays, the traditional Jewish sabbath and the seventh day of the week. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about St Paul and others worshipping in synagogues on Saturdays. But early-on Christians began to mark Sunday, the first day of the week, as their sabbath. Acts tells us that Christians gathered on Sundays, and the Book of Revelation refers to Sunday as ‘the Lord’s day’. By the second century, Christians settled on Sunday as the principal day on which they would proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ in common.

“Christianity spread rapidly in the Roman empire. Second-century folk were not sure what to make of this new group. Why were they gathering? What was their motive? Fears and misunderstandings and persecutions arose. Pliny the Younger, who was the Roman governor in what is now Turkey, wrote the Emperor Trajan early in the second century about Christian gathering, but Trajan was unwilling to lay down a general policy. Things got a bit darker in the fourth century when the Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians from gathering and ordered the destruction of copies of the Scriptures. In a place near modern-day Tunis, called Abitene, a group of Christians gathered, nonetheless. Legend has it that when asked why, one of them said, speaking in the Latin of the day, sine dominico, non possumus — ‘without Sunday, we cannot go on’.

“We Christians have gone on ever since with Sunday. Sunday is our chosen day to worship God through Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Spirit. In coming together onsite or online on Sunday we are thankful to be part of something – Someone – greater than ourselves. As St Paul reminds us, ‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it’ (I Corinthians 12.27). Yes, we are individuals, of course, but collectively ‘we are all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body’ (12.13). On a natural level, we crave community. Human beings are created by God as social beings. If the isolation necessary to slow the spread of disease during the Covid-19 pandemic has done anything, it has reminded us of the comfort we find in being together with our families and friends. On a supernatural level, we crave not only community, but also the life of the Spirit that is most acutely felt by addressing one another with psalms, by singing hymns and spiritual songs, by making music in our heart to the Lord, and by giving thanks to God (Ephesians 5.19–20).

“Every Sunday is an Easter Day, in some way, for every Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of the Lord and the fulness of the spiritual life we began in baptism. Sunday marks time, all time, from the rest God took after creation to the day of the Lord’s return at the end of time. St Basil the Great wrote that Sunday foreshadows the new day to come. It is a day without sunset, a day without nightfall, a day which neither grows old nor ends. As Christians we cherish the weekly rhythm established by God and instilled in us to come together, to worship and give thanks on the Lord’s day. On Sundays we gather onsite or online because, like our forebears in faith, we cannot go on without Sunday.”

‘Digital era is here but don’t forget the Prayer Book’

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull reminds us in the reflection below that the printed page can still “bridge our physical distances in a way different from the internet”.

The Covid-19 pandemic challenges Christians like no other crisis in living memory in terms of liturgy, writes Dr Hull. How do we pray and worship together when we cannot gather in person?

Our digital age offers options like YouTube and Facebook, which the Scottish Episcopal Church is using for Sundays. Moreover, the SEC has been posting the Daily Office on its website for years. The Internet is an invaluable medium to connect us.

Still, there is an older medium, the printed page, particularly the Scottish Prayer Book, through which we have connected for almost 400 years – even longer, if we look back to its roots in the Sarum rites and as far back as the tenth century. The pandemic is an opportunity to design new forms of prayer and worship, but also to revisit the classics, including Morning and Evening Prayer as found in the Prayer Book with the subheading: ‘to be said and used daily throughout the year’.

It is the vision of the Prayer Book that we should implore the Lord God every morning to open our lips, that our mouths may shew forth his praise; and every evening, that he would bless and keep us that night and forevermore. Though it would normally have us together in our churches, the Prayer Book’s very form, a handbook, facilitates its use when outwith church and congregation. These days public prayer in our churches is not viable, and that is a loss. There are times, however, when it is good to pray privately, when spiritual participation in the mystical body of Christ is more than sufficient, and there is no need to be connected physically, virtually or otherwise, save by love which is the bond of perfection. Is it not Jesus himself who reminds us that there are moments when we should close our doors and pray to our Father, who sees and hears all, in secret (Matthew 6.6)?

The private prayer to which we are constrained by this pandemic may be aided by the arcane language of the Prayer Book, which is germane to our present-day life in lockdown. Just a few months ago, it would have been incomprehensible that we would experience a threat to our health and wellbeing that makes the sixteenth century seem more safe and secure than our own. With the Prayer Book in hand, we are connected to our forebears in faith as we pray to and worship God on behalf of ourselves and the world.

The introductions to Morning and Evening Prayer remind us that ‘there is no health in us’, that we are ‘miserable’. Similarly, we ask – elsewhere in the Prayer Book, rendering a fourteenth-century chant – ‘in the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee O Lord?’ Our efforts in the Covid-19 crisis to alleviate suffering, to trust science to find a vaccine, and to believe in divine providence are fixed in our faith that it is Jesus who brings salvation. As the third collect of Evening Prayer has it: ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ’.

The Prayer Book bridges our physical distances in a way different from the Internet; it does so in ways no less palpable. Prayer Books are part of the fabric of our Anglican Communion. Our Scottish version has grown organically with our church through good times and bad, in the sicknesses and the health we have faced, all the while, for centuries, starting our days with Morning and Evening Prayer, daily and throughout the year.

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