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  • Writer's pictureMark Fairweather-Tall

'To open or not to open, that is the question.'

‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. This opening phrase uttered by Prince Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ is well known and often quoted or, indeed, misquoted as the question is changed. In its original context it marks the start of Hamlet engaging in a debate about whether it is better to live and be miserable or to just end it all? He takes into account how miserable human life is and how death (specifically suicide) could be preferable, if only death itself were not so uncertain. The decision is a dilemma from which there will be challenges whichever path is chosen. The misquotes happen as people change the question to express a different dilemma for which there is no clear-cut answer.

Perhaps at the beginning of this week, as we come out of the Firebreak lockdown and new government guidelines are released, there will be a number of debates in churches across the country discussing, ‘To open or not to open, that is the question”.

In England, the question is slightly different. Churches are at the beginning of a month-long lockdown during which they are banned from opening for public worship services. Many church leaders have spoken out about this, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior Anglicans[1]. Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, has written to the UK Faith minister to raise concerns about the impact on English churches.[2] And many are asking at this time, what is right? Should churches have to close during a national lockdown or is there a case for them being a special case and allowing public worship to continue? In other words, ‘to open or not to open, that is the question.’

Of course, there are many different opinions held and multiple reasons for the conclusions people have reached. This isn’t just a difference of opinion between government and church leaders. Neither is it simply a case of divided opinion amongst differing church denominations or their leaders. Within each church, ministers, elders, deacons and church members there are those who feel strongly that either the church should or should not open at this time. Maybe this is something you can identify with from your own experience. ‘To open or not to open’ is a dilemma that is complex in nature and can be draining to engage with.

As we think through these issues, let me highlight a few things (there are many others) that we might like to consider as we ponder our answer to the question.

1) Corporate Worship is important to us

Going to church on a Sunday is something I have done for the whole of my life. It is a priority and it has always been a tremendous joy to gather with others to worship God. I love to sing in community, hear the Bible read and God’s Word preached. Along the way I have met many amazing people who have inspired me and encouraged me on my Christian journey. The Bible tells me of the importance of meeting with others: Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be with them; The writer of Hebrews urges us not to give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.

Gathering together to worship God is important and maybe you, like me, lament the situation where we cannot gather. It is understandable that we do not want to be denied the opportunity and want to resume our practice as soon as possible.

However, perhaps we should ensure we don’t lose sight of the way God has been present with us. Technology has offered us a way to worship together in new ways and to participate in ways we might not have been able to before. Whether it Facebook Live, Zoom, Youtube or some other format, people are still able to gather and worship together. The use of chat facilities means that we can engage with one another more easily – sharing prayer requests, bible verses and words of encouragement during the service. As we worship together, physically apart but present in the same space, God is with us. And God, being God, is big enough and powerful enough to speak to us individually and corporately even when we are not located together in the same building. And He is big enough that even if we catch up at a different time rather than joining in live, we can still share (albeit in a different way) with a corporate act of worship.

I have long found a common phrase shared in church services has jarred with my understanding of God. It goes something like this: “We come into God’s presence today…” However, I believe that God is present with me when I am not in the church building. Corporate worship is about celebrating and taking time to appreciate God’s presence that all of us can experience wherever we are, not ‘coming into His presence’ as if I have been away from it outside of the church building. We can experience God’s presence in solitude and indeed isolation as well and perhaps we need to be better at telling this story – we can always worship God who is always present wherever we are.

I do not mean to suggest by this that corporate worship where we are physically together at the same time is not preferable in the long run. However, at this time, with our current situation, the answer about whether we open or not may not be quite so clear cut and we can value a sense of corporate worship either way. Together we can celebrate and appreciate God’s presence with us.

2) Fellowship is important to us

Churches have worked incredibly hard over recent months to open in a Covid-safe way. Risk assessments have been done, new layouts have been designed, content of services has been altered and so on and so on. The desire to meet together is strong and a part of this is the importance of connection that comes from being in the same place. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because God has made us to live in community with Him and with one another. In a society where isolation and loneliness is becoming increasingly endemic, people’s mental health is becoming an ever greater concern. In the face of this, churches offer a place to build strength through fellowship to help us through tough times as we meet together in person.

Whilst wanting to affirm this, it should perhaps also be noted that churches have engaged in many different ways to help others draw on God’s strength and build connection whilst buildings are closed. I have heard it said from a number of ministers that they have recognised groups in church who are more connected and more able to draw on God’s strength than before. Most churches have those who are unable to attend services – the elderly, those who suffer from long-term illness, people battling depression who are unable to face company, are just some examples. Many are benefiting from new ways of being able to engage with church outside of Sunday services.

Perhaps living with the lament of loss over not physically meeting together will help us discover new ways of enabling people to draw on God’s strength. Many in our communities are lamenting over loss as well. People are robbed of previous certainties; our comfort and ability to control our lives has been unmasked as a fallacy. As we walk together in a sense of loss, there may be new ways we can help others draw on the strength of God in turning to the one who is in control of the future and who is with us in our struggles.

So whether or not we open, perhaps an important question is about whether we can grow a sense of connection with those inside and outside of the church.

3) Getting it right is important to us

I was speaking to a minister recently who was facing the dilemma of ‘to open or not to open’, when he asked me the direct question, ‘Do you think we should open’? My honest, if unhelpful, answer was simply, ‘I don’t know’. There are so many variables at the moment and every situation is different. One of the challenges we face at this time in seeking to answer the question, ‘to open or not to open’ is that there are likely to be drawbacks either way and whichever we choose we are likely to see (or have pointed out to us) the negatives.

Let me share some examples: if we don’t open, we may have it pointed out to us that another church (local or from the same denomination) has managed to open successfully. Or perhaps we might be accused of not placing enough value on the act of gathering for worship. On the other hand, If we do open, it may be pointed out that there are those who are excluded because of their health situations – after all giving lifts to people is not really an option at this time. We may find that although our risk assessments are good, those attending don’t adhere to the social distancing guidelines. If this happens outside the building and is witnessed by others it might have a negative impact on our witness to the community.

Perhaps getting it right isn’t so much about the answer to the question ‘to open or not to open’ but through the questions that we ask as we come to a decision.

1) Whether we decide to open or not, how can we foster a sense of God’s presence with us as we worship?

2) Whether we decide to open or not, how can we build a sense of fellowship where we can connect with each other and encourage one another to draw our strength from God?

3) Whether we decide to open or not, how can we engage in our wider call to make disciples – helping those who have faith to mature and reaching out to those who do not know Jesus in order that they might come to faith in him.

‘To open or not to open, that is the question’. Or maybe that isn’t really the most important question after all. Perhaps the more important question is how we can fulfil our calling from God more effectively, regardless of whether or not we open our building on a Sunday for public worship.

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