Will COVID-19 transform the Church’s relationship with science?

The Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham
Old wooden doors

Image: “Porta Beuda” by Josep Carmona Vilà is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Jesus declared “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:19), he was speaking about his body, foreshadowing his crucifixion and resurrection. But to his audience, the idea of abolishing a building so central to their worship and reinventing it in a short time must have seemed frightening and impossible. They will have questioned what it would mean for their identity as a religious community not to be able to meet together; how their faith could be maintained on a corporate level; and whether things would ever go back to the way they were.

Similar questions are being asked by many Christians in the UK since the government implemented a lockdown policy in March, which included the closure of our churches for public worship.

As Bishop of Kingston — serving an area of London from Kingston to Waterloo, which includes well over a million people and over one hundred parishes — I am highly aware that the closure of buildings does not mean that the life of the Church has ground to a halt. Indeed, online church has existed for many years, and has been very important for people who have not been able or wanted to attend ‘offline’ church.

However, the speed at which many church communities have adapted to this crisis and begun offering resources online — many of them for the first time — is remarkable and inspirational. For example, in addition to its regular Sunday service, the Ascension Church in Balham Hill has introduced new resources for people staying at home, including Pyjama Prayers, a time of all-age guided prayer streamed on YouTube, as well as daily meditation over Zoom. In some cases, ministers are seeing greater numbers attend online gatherings than we are used to seeing in pews on a Sunday morning. It is a similar story across the country. It may have taken us a little longer than three days to get here, but I am grateful that during this time that could be so isolating, Christians are finding ways of staying connected in worship, prayer and mutual support.

As a co-director of a major national project called “Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science” (ECLAS), I am especially interested in the future implications of the coronavirus pandemic for the church. ECLAS exists to help the whole Church engage with some of the big questions raised by science and technology.

Over the coming months we will look at whether living through this crisis has changed attitudes toward science. Will there be greater appreciation of the power of science to understand and shape our world? Will we see significant development of the use of digital technology in our churches? What will be the emotional impact on clergy who have presided over an increase in funerals, and those forced to rely on technology to offer words of comfort to people in their final moments?

I firmly believe that engaging with science and technology can teach us more about God and the incredible universe we live in; that’s why we need to equip church leaders to engage with this topic. This includes how we understand the gift of science and all it adds to our collective knowledge; it also provokes deep questions of how a loving God acts in a creation which includes viruses like COVID-19. This pandemic will have a profound effect on how we live in and understand our world, and what the right Christian response should be.

ECLAS is committed to encouraging the whole Church to engage deeply with the implications of science in our time. Considering science within the wider framework of our theological understanding is a vital task. ECLAS is helping to do this via conferences bringing together senior church leaders and leading scientists; grants for local church initiatives exploring science and Christian faith; and producing educational resources for those who will enter training for ministry in the Church in the next few years, who may find that online church and major science and theology matters are no longer optional, but integral to their ministry.

Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a spiritual revolution; God was revealed to be more loving, gracious and inclusive than we ever imagined. Today, we know that God is not confined to a particular building, but is present in our homes, in our hospitals, and in our research laboratories. Our church buildings will open again, but until they do, let us use this time to explore how we could be reaching out to others and to God in new and unexpected ways.



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