By Simon Cuff

Today we celebrate a feast in the Church’s year that often struggles to find a place in our theologies, though it is secure in our creed: the Ascension. Jesus is taken up out of the apostles’ sight and they gaze towards heaven, only to be told, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). While it’s possible to think of theologians, traditions, denominations who make almost every other key event in the life of the Incarnate Word a keystone — Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and beyond, Creation and Pentecost — the Ascension is often overlooked or reduced to a pair of wounded feet dangling from a ceiling. There are of course exceptions — Karl Barth and Joseph Ratzinger spring to mind — who rightly focus not so much on what happens to Jesus in the Ascension but on what happens to us, and by extension the whole of the created order, in God’s taking humanity to himself.

Part of our unease in reflecting on the Ascension is that it forces us to focus on a tension in the Gospel accounts between the endings of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). “He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).

Like all tensions in Christian orthodoxy, we prefer not to dwell on them. We pass over them and try to smooth them out as neatly and quickly as possible. We do this with Christology: the Jesus we preach is more human or more divine as we resolve the apparent tension on which Christian orthodoxy is built, Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We do this with trinitarian thought: our theologies of God either emphasize the unique oneness or the social “threeness” of the Godhead. Meanwhile, orthodoxy insists on a oneness and a threeness that are simultaneous, and is quite happy to let this obvious tension rest. Heretical thinking cuts the chords of these tensions completely in ways that are often more attractive simply because they avoid us having to bear these tensions at all — Jesus isn’t fully divine, God isn’t simultaneously one in three.

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What has any of this to do with the Church of England’s response to the current pandemic which has impacted and will impact the lives of every Christian in some way? The closure of Church buildings (at first for services, then for private prayer, then even for clergy — a restriction now lifted) has provoked furious discussion. Debate has centered on the role of place and the extent to which entering our buildings is essential to our Christian ministry. This has spilled over into a wider conversation as to the extent to which the Church of England and its liturgical spaces are essential features of public life. Tensions have been exposed in our understanding of what it means to “be Church” that in ordinary circumstances we prefer to pass over.

The voices in this debate are many. Some notable examples include Peter Selby, for whom the closure of Church buildings to clergy marked an unforgivable retreat by the Church of England from public to private life.  He bemoaned that “the case was never made that clergy are key workers, exercising an essential public function, one rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches and the liturgical function they carry out within them.” His article was cited by the more than 600 signatories of a letter to The Times of London pleading for the bishops to allow clergy to enter their buildings.

The essential relationship between consecrated space and ministry has been echoed by others, notably Marcus Walker, who fears that by abandoning our buildings the Church “has written itself out of the story.” Giles Fraser has made something of a volte-face from once viewing buildings as “stone idols” to seeing parish ministry as rooted in particular space.  Angela Tilby does not mince her words: “how trite has been the little trope that ‘The Church is people, not buildings,’ which totally misses the point about the public and institutional nature of the Church. We are now a domestic, members-only Church.”

Jonathan Clark responded to Selby, questioning whether the essential public function exercised by clergy is rooted upon buildings and dependent upon them, particularly in a digital age in which virtual spaces are as “public” for many as physical ones. He raised the question, which has become something of a specter in this debate, of whether church buildings had become an idol, rather than the worship-enabling icon that consecrated space is intended to be.

In a broad characterization of the Church of England’s response, Meg Warner writes that the “most pressing instance of public absentia in the face of disaster is the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior bishops to close Church of England churches during the Covid-19 pandemic.” She regrets that what the Church of England “has to offer, the official position concedes, is markedly less than that offered by hospitals and supermarkets, off-licences, take-away restaurants, post offices, banks, public transport, and DIY stores. It does not consider itself and its ministry to be ‘essential.’”

All sides in these debates agree that Christian ministry, and the ministry of the Church of England in particular, is essential. Where they differ is not on whether the Church has something essential to offer, but what is “essential” to that ministry. What is really being debated is the essence of the Church itself. Competing visions of what is “essential” for Church to be Church are being offered or revealed through what particular voices assume. Visions of what is necessary for the fullness of Church life or the flourishing of Church life are being contested in front of our eyes.

As Anglicans, we are in our public disagreement revealing ourselves to be, unsurprisingly, Anglican in the face of pandemic. To be Anglican is to be part of a group of Christians for whom an essential feature of being Church is inhabiting a space in which what it means to be Church is perpetually contested. It is no surprise therefore that the Church of England’s response to this pandemic has been contested: internally, publicly, and, at times, painfully.

Charlie Bell says “one key tension of this period has been between continuity and change.” He cautions against those who want to use this period as an excuse to bring about wholesale change in the nature of what it means to be Church, noting that ‘‘’new ways of being Church’ must be grounded in what the very nature of the Church is in the first place.” The response of the Church of England — both officially and by those who have decried the official response — has revealed our way of being Church has remained in remarkable continuity with what has been before. The Church of England is a Church contested.

One fruit of this contest might be to spend more time focusing on the tensions that lie behind these competing understandings of Church. Just as the tension between Christ’s presence with us always and his heavenward ascension offers us important insights about the nature of humanity lived in the light of the Resurrection and its intimate relation to divinity in Christ, so likewise there is truth to be encountered by dwelling on the tension between those who view consecrated space as essential for Church and those who view Church as located primarily in a gathering of “consecrated” people.

The truth lies no more in a via media between these views than the truth of the gospel lies in a via media between Christ’s presence and his apparent absence. Instead, just as Christ is both present us with always, and we are to enjoy that greater presence when we reside with Christ eternally in our ultimate home, so we need the insights of both sides of these competing visions of the Church to live as Church fully. We need to be reminded perpetually both that to be Christian by virtue of the Incarnation is to be concerned with the physicality of space and the reality of the conditions of the world around us, but also that the Church is not confined to the spaces marked out specifically as Christian. As Church we transcend our buildings as people, and we transcend our people by the Christian way of being that leaves its impression on the buildings and spaces around us and the assets that we bequeath to others — those in need and those future generations of Christians who inherit them from us.

Both sides of this debate are needed in the Church, and the tension that this has revealed is one that bears dwelling on, especially as we go on to play our vital role in responding to this crisis and rebuilding our society in the months and years to come. To do so requires us to do the painful work of recognizing the tensions that exist within our ecclesiology, but to spend our time not simply staring (and shouting at) each other, but fixing our gaze on Christ, to see where he leads us as he invites us to transcend such divisions and live the fullness of truth that attempts creatively to live according to the insights of both.

A final note of caution is needed for what this debate has reminded us about the power and privilege the Church of England enjoys as an institutional Church. For those outside the Church of England, in denominations that lack the physical and social capital of the buildings which have been the source of our dispute, or who live in places where such public declarations of faith are unthinkable, or who lack the kind of accommodation most Church of England clergy were confined to until the restriction was lifted, this debate is probably unfathomable.

We do well to be reminded of this as one of the fruits of this dispute: to see all of the assets we have been entrusted as “gift” and to ask continuously, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, how we are being asked to use them at this time and in this place and for whom. We are called to reflect on the full extent of gifts with which the body of Christ has been equipped for his service, and to ask ourselves what we are going to bequeath to those around us and to those who follow us as fellow travelers on Christ’s way.

Fr Simon Cuff is Lecturer and Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College, Honorary Assistant Priest at St Cyprian’s Clarence Gate and Fellow of the Centre for Theology & Community.

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You are correct that most people don’t regard Ascension Day with much understanding and/or ardor. At least the Germans get it as a holiday! But it has a richness that you don’t even scratch the surface of: – “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) In an expression of Christianity that has often been leery of the Holy Spirit, today is a day to begin raising expectations about… Read more »

[…] Simon Cuff cites  Meg Warner who writes, for example that the “most pressing instance of public absentia in the face of disaster is the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior bishops to close Church of England churches during the Covid-19 pandemic.” She regrets that what the Church of England “has to offer, the official position concedes, is markedly less than that offered by hospitals and supermarkets, off-licences, take-away restaurants, post offices, banks, public transport, and DIY stores. It does not consider itself and its ministry to be ‘essential.’” […]