Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
- Matthew 8:22
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
- John 6:51
In March of 2020, every church in England was forcibly closed by the government. This was the first time that the churches had been closed in this land since the early thirteenth century. During outbreaks of the plague in the sixteenth century and cholera in the nineteenth, no similar action was taken. Quite the contrary in fact. Religious activity increased during those periods in which death became an imminent reality, and men felt more keenly their need for God’s deliverance. Days of national penance and fasting were called, processions to St Paul’s Cathedral with the monarch and highest in the land present, a general encouragement to go to church more, not less: listen to the sermon, repent, pray, receive the Eucharist, and so on.
In a way it is hard not to feel sympathy with the religious leaders, including the Church of England bishops, who made the decisions they did back in March. They were in a dilemma: close the churches or break the law. It seemed that it would only be for a short time: three weeks we were told. And we could cope for that brief period with telephone calls and online “meetings”. So perhaps sympathy is appropriate when we consider this.
However, what is less easy to sympathize with is the apparent enthusiasm with which some bishops enacted the executive order, going beyond the law in order to ban clergy from praying and celebrating the Eucharist in their own churches, even if they lived next to them, even if they were part of their own houses, even if they were already in them to clean and maintain the buildings. This seemed to indicate less a grudging acceptance of an extremely brief suspension of public worship than something more troubling, a sense that the bishops wanted their churches to be closed, wanted their buildings to fall silent, wanted to signal to the world that food banks were more important than the Eucharist and healthcare more important than worship.
Something had gone wrong. Or perhaps it might be better to say, something had been revealed, an apocalypse, an unmasking of what was truly there all along. But what was it?
The reaction of many bishops, priests and lay-folk is certainly indicative of a deep secularization of the Church, a loss of belief in the supernatural and an acceptance of the unbelieving ontology and metaphysics of Modernity. Something that makes this all the more insidious is that the people who promote these false ideas are often those who appear orthodox. They appear to believe in Scripture, for example. They appear to affirm the Creeds. But their actions, especially when under a certain type of pressure, don’t seem to bear these beliefs out.
Now we are all unbelievers in a sense. In a sense none of us fully believe, and our beliefs must be inconsistent to a degree because we are epistemologically as well as ontically fallen. But this observation should help us to examine ourselves all the more closely, especially at moments of crisis when we are put under pressure.
A way into this might be to think about what the words “life” and “death” really mean. Put plainly, Modernity views life as merely the suspension of death. Underneath all human existence and existence itself there is only the void. We are thrown into existence, as Heidegger puts it; we flicker around for a time like a trembling flame or as a leaf blown in the wind, and then, in an instant, we are no more. Who wouldn’t then seek to preserve that mysterious, tremulous flame for as long as possible, if all that were on the other side were darkness?
The irony of this view, of course, is that, in accepting it, even tacitly, Christians are complicit in endorsing the ontological priority of death: death’s ultimate power, death’s ultimate victory over life. And this, however unintentional, is idolatry.
Practically, in accepting that life is merely the postponement of death, we involve ourselves in the promotion of a kind of “living death”, in which only literally being alive is valued and no emphasis at all is placed on the quality or type of life that people are living. This is vividly illustrated for us in the figure of Gollum of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring gives life, yes, but look at the type of life it gives: unnatural, dehumanizing, crippling, diminishing of everything Smeagol the Hobbit was to begin with, everything he was meant to be. Or consider the filmic trope of the zombie, the human being that has been reanimated so that he “lives” again. But that life is redolent more of what we call death and so he is called the living dead. Perhaps the most inventive and powerful depiction of the living dead is in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a shopping centre now inhabited by zombies. They shuffle around in crowds, moving from shop to shop, peering in at the windows. Romero is asking us to consider whether we are that different from them in our mindless consumerism.
Far from representing compassion to people, this view of bare life at all costs is actually cruel. It is a truism that, if your political outlook causes you to do things to people that are degrading and dehumanizing, you should change your political outlook. This of course applies to the wicked atheists of the Chinese Communist Party who literally took to welding people inside their homes when they believed that they had the Coronavirus. But we must ask ourselves if we are that different? Did we not do a similar thing when we emptied our hospitals of older folk and put them into care homes where the most vulnerable people would be? Are we not now dehumanizing, degrading and even torturing older folks by locking them in these homes for months and months, cutting them off from their loved ones? What kind of compassion is this?
I heard a heartbreaking story, the like of which must be common, of a man who used to visit his wife every day in a care home. She suffers from dementia. He used to hold her hand, he used to brush her hair, he used to talk to her and tell her stories of their life together. And he was the only one she responded to, the only one who kept her from slipping away. Since March he has been banned from seeing her, except via Zoom, which she does not understand. The only meaningful human touch that she knew has been taken from her. And all that her husband can do is watch as the last vestiges of the woman that he has loved and cared for all of these years gradually vanishes.
The actions of the state and any care homes that enforce these rules are evil, wicked, inhumane. But these rules are the logical implication of the way that we have decided to run our society. My point is that bare life is not real life and may be more akin to death. My point is that the Christian Church, in accepting that this is how we should treat people in a crisis, is unwittingly complicit in the promotion of cruelty and death.
I turn now, however, to theology. Following C.S. Lewis, who made this point in Mere Christianity, we might want to make a distinction here between two Greek words: bios and zoe. Bios is natural life, that has to be supplemented by food, air, water and so on. Bios is good as it was made by God, but it is not equivalent to the life that God has, and not equivalent to the life that he wants to give to us. Rather, it is an echo, a shadow, an image of that life. Lewis says that it is like a statue to a real man. Zoe, however, is a different type of life: spiritual life, eternal life, a participation in the very life of God himself, and this is given to us, not through our natural birth, but through our second birth. When we receive zoe, we are like statues coming to life. That life which we possessed before becomes this new life as a statue is to a man or as an echo is to the voice that spoke the word. That life is temporary, fragile, fleeting, blighted by suffering and loss; the new life is eternal, indestructible, tangible and filled with eternal joy. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” says the Lord (John 10:10(b)). This is why Christ came to the earth: the only begotten one, who along with the Holy Spirit, shares the life of God, desires to share that life with us, so that we might not just possess the shadow, but also the substance.
You could summarize this by saying, quite simply, that there is perhaps only one thing that is more important than not dying, and that is to truly live.
And so, what about the Church? The first thing to say is that, in my view, we see in the Church’s response an a fortiori repost to Protestant approaches which disbelieve in the sacraments, make of baptism and the Lord’s Supper nothing but ordinances which are really bare signs of non-present realities, believe that the Church is nothing but the fellowship of believers and that the only thing that is important is a shared set of ideas that exist in the minds of Christians. If this is the case, then of course it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever if the visible institution of the Church even exists or not. Because, every time we switch on our computer and have a video call with another Christian, there “church” is present. We don’t even need to meet in person now because of this new technology. (Did we ever? Could we have used the telephone or morse-code before?) Jesus is there among us in the fibre-optic cables, surfing in the infinite cosmos of the internet. But this should profoundly disturb us, especially if we are Anglicans, not least because it completely contradicts our formularies and denies our historic ecclesiology.
A broader work on ecclesiology needs to be undertaken to provide a proper response to what I consider to be nothing less than a heretical view of the Church, but perhaps we can start by looking at the two Dominical sacraments.
Firstly, in baptism, we learn that death can be good as well as bad, for it is in dying to our old way of life that we are reborn to a better one. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, ‘In this same time you died and were reborn, and that saving water became both grave and mother for you’ (Catechetical Lectures, 2.4). Not only this but baptism ‘effects the cleansing of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (2.6). This entirely biblical view shows us that baptism identifies us with Christ’s death and unites us with him in his resurrection, so that we too might walk in newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6.4).
Now, I wonder what the effect of shutting the churches has been on the amount of baptisms that have taken place. How many people who would have been baptized haven’t been? How many people have foregone the gift of God because the leaders of the churches were not willing to open them so that they might know this gift of death and rebirth? Of course, the low church will say, “It doesn’t matter. God’s grace is everywhere!” Except that is not what the Bible or, indeed Christ, says about baptism. Nor is it what the Anglican Church teaches.
The situation with the Eucharist is just as egregious. Consider John 6:51, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever.” Christ, further on, makes an implicit comparison between zoe and bios when he says that this bread is not “such as the fathers ate and died” and again he says, “he who eats this bread will live for ever” (John 6:58). Even the fathers, who ate the manna in the wilderness, still died. Even we who live off the fat of the land, who rejoice in the good food and drink that God gives to us, will die, will lose bios. Even we who live because of the gift of medical treatment, even we who isolate ourselves in our homes, even we who take every precaution to preserve and prolong bios will only ever effect a temporary stay. We will still die; we will still lose bios. But Christ offers us bread which will make us live forever. And, make no mistake, when Christ speaks of life here, he speaks of zoe, he speaks of immortality and everlasting joy in God’s presence.
I am not trying to involve anyone in a discussion of the Real Presence, so please don’t misunderstand. The point here is that there is a promise, direct from the lips of Christ, that, although you will die and lose bios, you will nevertheless live forever if you eat the bread which is his flesh. You will have zoe.
Now, again, the extreme Protestant might want to say, “Ah, but we can eat the bread at home.” And there is a whole ecclesiological debate here which cannot be had now, but let us just listen one more time to Cyril of Jerusalem, who says, “For in the figure of bread is the body given to you, and in the figure of wine the blood is given to you, in order that, having received the body and blood of Christ, you may become his one body and one blood in Christ”(2.3). This statement could be taken as an explication of what is implicit in Acts 2.42, in which the earliest Church is said to devote itself to four things: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.
Many people have observed that there are three versions of Christ’s body in the New Testament: his actual, physical body which rose and is in heaven, his Eucharistic body, which is made present to us on earth in the bread and wine, and his ecclesial body, which is the Church. It makes perfect temporal sense of that three-fold identity to say that Christ was incarnate physically, instituted the Eucharist to be his sacramental presence on earth, which in turn gives life to, and sustains, his ecclesial body, which is the Church. And the latter in the same way as physical bread gives life to a human community.
And so there is a direct relationship between the breaking of the bread and fellowship. Why is this? Because we gather to receive the body that we might become the body. And bodies are connected – literally connected – they are united spacially and have continuity temporally. The purpose of God in the Church is to unite, in an act of cosmic and inter-personal reconciliation, a humanity that has fragmented and atomized because of sin. The internet does not reverse this atomization, but acts as a kind of grotesque parody of the catholicity that the Church truly represents. The internet does not have sacraments; the internet does not have real human reconciliation and forgiveness; the internet cannot make a body. The internet is not the Church. And if one believes that the internet can replace the functions of the Church then that person never believed in the Church in the first place.
I should conclude: the Church must promote the ontological priority of life, but primarily a life that can only be had truly through Christ. It must abandon the false and cruel view that life must be extended at all costs, no matter who it hurts and no matter what it does to our life together as Christians. Finally, the Church must insist on its own priority as the fountain of grace, as an internet of the flesh, as the place where redemption is found through faith, through baptism, through fellowship and reconciliation with other Christians, and in our highest act of worship as we receive the Lord’s life into our bodies and souls in the Eucharist. This is nothing less than the recovery of the aboriginal beauty of creation, the ark of salvation, the site of a new humanity, the prefiguring of the eschatological community of heaven. And this can be, as Augustine rightly said, the only truly just community because it is the only community that truly gives God his due.
Perhaps, in these dark days, we can rediscover something of this our glorious identity.