Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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29 thoughts on “Post-COVID Beauty in the Church”

  1. Wearing masks in Church and social distancing seem to go against the idea of the Mass being a gathering of the faithful to worship God. As for the practicalities of receiving communion, given in the hand using sugar tongs from a gloved and masked priest seems weird. Then to consume the host, the Lord will be held in one hand whilst the other carefully removes the mask from the ear with the free hand. None of this seems practical and inevitably there will be accidents. Add to this that the elderly, and those preferring to continue to shield or not mix in groups, together with others who are simply terrified to go out will be absent, our communities will be incomplete.

    I don’t fit any of those groups, but I will not be going to Mass for the time being. My wife is a teacher and should anyone in the congregation have a positive test, everyone will be quarantined and that may involve closing a whole school.

    There are countries where communities are so remote, they only gather once a year for the arrival of a priest. It seems to me it may be better for us to wait and continue to maintain our Eucharistic fast until we can all gather safely together.

    • Your comment raises several important questions which I cannot answer. One thing I would say the Church cannot do is go into a semi-permanent lockdown ‘until we can all gather safely together’. It would be like closing our schools for years. Catechesis, the sacraments of formation, the habit of prayer in common, are essential to the Church’s being, aren’t they? How do we do that?

      • I agree, but it appears there are much stricter rules for church gatherings. Masks have not been a requirement in schools, except for personal care of an individual and my wife has been in most of the time. We are not required to wear masks anywhere else, just simple face coverings are accepted (except hospitals) nor is there a requirement to provide contact details, for example, when travelling on public transport.

        • Thank you, Chris. I wasn’t so much thinking about what we might call the mechanics of worship in the immediate future as the longer-term approach to how the Church fulfils her mission in a world that has already been changed by COVID-19 and will continue to be changed by its consequences. Worship is an essential part of that, of course, but in my view the Church as an organization — her structures, and so on — her physical presence in the world, how she evangelizes, and so on, need urgent thinking about.

  2. There is nothing I can add to what you say, Sr Catherine. You have, as always, seen to the heart of the matter. Beauty is something we have, in the Anglican church, lost sight of at times. We are busy trying to be user friendly and not “different” from the world and are embarrassed to embrace the beauty in liturgy, music and art. We have a pick and mix culture of church hopping if the local one doesn’t suit – understandable but …. I should love to think that we could have a proper look at how we go forward without losing what matters, but am not too confident. Thank you, as ever, for your thoughts which so often express what I think before I know I’m thinking it!

    • Thank you. I think we all need to reflect and pray. I can only look at the Anglican Church as a well-meaning and interested outsider so I do not know the particular problems you face post-COVID but my hunch is they are common to us all.

  3. Wow, Dame Catherine. How to respond to that? I wholeheartedly agree with you, but over recent years I think that the Church, as an organisation, has totally failed to recognise, let alone appreciate, the changes that they have made which have affected church attendance and the way we we do things which has been compounded by external events such as Covid-19.

    In my own diocese, because of the shortage of priests, and the effort to make sure that they are not put under too much pressure, only one Mass is normally offered in each church, and one priest may have to serve two or even three churches. Because of this, congregations have been concentrated, but with social distancing, what is really needed is many small groups meeting to share Communion and fellowship. We used to be able to have house Masses but with the shortage of clergy that is unlikely to ever happen again unless Ministers of The Eucharist are allowed to lead such services.

    You mention beauty and I have to admit being sometimes destracted during Mass when windows look out over surrounding countryside and animals feeding, or when light streams through plain or stained glass. In our own Vurch services after the gospel and a short reflection on the readings by the leader we have a time for reflection accompanied by images. Yesterday, as well as some images of our Church and it’s artworks we had an image of St Paul in prison – something we would never have during Mass, but for me was incredibly moving.

    What I am missing most is my twice weekly Morning Office and Mass. Morning Office is usually only attended by four or five other people, but there can be 14 or so at Mass and on Wednesday some of us chat over tea or coffee – but if we have to keep even at a metre distance the coffee would be impossible, and rather than using the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, we would have to meet in the church.

    My mind is taken back to Eyam, the plague village which self isolated, where parishioners met to pray in Cucklet Delf which is a natural ampitheatre where families could pray together but keep apart from others. I attended one of the annual services there. I have also attended outdoor Masses at Gilwell Park, the Scout Training centre and at Great Tower above Lake Windermere where the beauty is all around – unfortunately not so nice in pouring rain or driving snow.

    But I don’t think that we’ll ever get back to normal because many lost the church habit when churches were amalgamated and they either didn’t like the new Mass time or didn’t want to travel to another church and fear of infection might keep the others away. The church community will have to find other ways – is there going to be a Covid Reformation? I rather think so.

    • Thank you. The ‘return to normal’, in my view, isn’t even a possibility; but I’m not at all convinced that that is what we should be aiming at, anyway. We all have our own experience of the Church, for good or ill, and I’m sure we all have our own opinion about the root cause of whatever we regard as her shortcomings. But I think it is just as important to see that COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity. It isn’t one any of us would have chosen, but it is there and I do believe that if we are prepared to work and pray something beautiful — a work of grace — can be achieved.

  4. Beauty is important in an upsetting (and upset) world. During the height of the lockdown here in Germany, when it was impossible to publicly celebrate the Eucharist, our local Cathedral stayed open during the day, so that people could come in and pray individually. The Metropolitan Chapter had made sure the interior of the Cathedral was beautifully decorated with flowers, in a way normally only seen during the great church feasts. It was a beautiful, serene celebration of springtime glory and God’s cration. And the effort that had been very clearly made to make the Cathedral as welcoming and beautiful as possible in these difficult times was much appreciated and talked about. They had turned the interior of the Cathedral into one big sermon on hope.

    • That is very encouraging. Thank you for sharing that. Here, until recently, the doors of our churches were closed even to those who just wanted to go in and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. It has also been difficult for our friends of different faith traditions.

  5. Thank you so much for this, which articulates a very great deal of what is going on in the murk of this innermost consciousness, at any rate. There is so much that feeds the soul, which is at risk of being sidelined as not Of The Essence. No it isns’t! but it certainly speaks of that Essence!

  6. I think first of all we must accept that this may be a pivotal moment in the Church. We didn‘t want it or create it, but it‘s what we have. We are being given the opportunity to relearn what being Christian means. Step one will be letting go….of all the treasured and familiar rites and practices. It may be that some or many of these survive, pushing out new shoots once pruned back. The garden is overgrown, clearing the tangled undergrowth was beyond our powers and strength, so God did it for us. We have to embrace this, pray and discern, and the clergy must join the laity in doing so. It has the potential of a new beginning if we let it be.

  7. Thank you once more for your wise and thought provoking comments and observations.
    At the moment I think most of our thoughts are beginning with “I wonder…..”.
    One benefit of the lockdown has been, for those of us fortunate enough to be in direct contact with the natural world, increased time to contemplate its beauty and to worry about its future, and if possible to do all we can in our own small corner to be good stewards of creation.

    As a musician I share your deep concerns about the world of the creative arts and the beauty to be found and expressed there. I worry for my pupils, some hoping to make a career in the performing arts, and for my colleagues, working so hard to keep music going, and for my dear friends with whom I “normally” sing beautiful music in choirs.
    It’s not going to be the same ever again, but I hope there is going to be some space for the outpouring of the human spirit. As you say, most people seem to be thinking about football and hairdressers – important, but not the only measures of a healthy society.

    As an Anglican I can only report our experience in our group of small rural parishes where Zoom services have filled a need we didn’t truly appreciate before COVID – those people who long for a participatory (rather than streamed or prerecorded) service where they can meet other worshippers without having to get to church! It’s different but it’s very real. It doesn’t yet fill the space you describe of a shared sensory experience in terms of light, touch etc but I hope we will learn and grow together. I expect the Zoom provision to continue even if/when we get back to “normal” services.

    • Thank you. You are voicing the concerns of many here. I expect live-streamed worship to continue, though not all rural areas have equal access to decent broadband, unfortunately, which sets up a further potential division in the Church. A major problem for Catholics will always be access to the sacraments — not just the Holy Eucharist but Confession, the Sacrament of the Sick and so on.

  8. As a Protestant who has for many years accompanied his Roman Catholic wife to Mass, I am very conscious of the sensuous atmosphere of the church which you mention. My Calvinistic upbringing has perhaps made me a little apprehensive of this richness, but on the whole, I very much approve of including beauty in the service and hope the Pope and bishops will listen to to your suggestions.
    I especially like the practice of turning to neighbours and wishing them “Peace be with you!” and hope we can return to that very soon. ( although we are house-bound and will not again live those experiences).

  9. So much of what I had felt and fretted about is in this blog post. Firstly as an older lay woman – thus easily triply ignorable, I have felt the distance between the male clergy and the ‘others’ grow to unhappy proportions. It has seemed to many of us that the clergy, and in particular the hierarchy are so concerned with reopening the churches that it had resulted in the exclusion of so much else that could be said and done. Perhaps that’s not fair, but that’s the impression.
    And I think that is a consequence of the disempowerment of the laity and the female laity in particular. Our efforts and activities have been in a world with no ‘church’ and apart from watching a Mass on a phone there has been no possibility of connection with the parish (who holds the email addresses – who knows who’s in need of a phone call – who knows who would welcome being in an online prayer group) it’s always ‘Father’ who with the best will in the world cannot, and should not be holding all the strings.
    As to beauty, you are so right. I’m tempted to be iconoclastic and suggest that in line with the ‘popular topic’ this would be an opportunity to remove the ugly statues that do not ornament our churches, but that would be incendiary. I think many of us have found beauty in the woods and country paths we have explored and the delight in hearing the songbirds instead of the roar of traffic. Laudato Si really comes into its own at this time, and I look forward to a robust and practical response from the Bishops to empower the laity and show good leadership themselves, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Thank you. I think many readers will be able to echo what you say. I find it distressing that many of the laity, women in particular, feel they have no voice in the Church or that many of the areas where they could contribute are effectively barred to them. I myself have experienced both dictatorial clergy and clergy who are wonderful collaborators and enablers. Please don’t think that your efforts to be the Church in the world are not valued. They are, and they are a powerful reminder to everyone that the Church exists in people as well as structure and buildings. As I say often, be encouraged!

  10. I don’t think you did John Green’s comment the justice it deserves. He points out that beauty – the apparent focus of your blog – is to be found in virtual encounters just as much as in physical ones.

    • Thank you.It is 4.28 am as I reply to your comment. That may give you some idea of how little time I have to respond in detail to every comment/email/message I receive, though I do my best. I’m sorry you feel that I have short-changed John. I wasn’t intentional, and if you look back through some of my previous posts of the last seventeen years, you’ll see that I have, in fact, addressed the subject of virtual encounters quite regularly.

  11. Today I read an article stating research has demonstrated video chats short circuit an important function in the brain related to the development of trust, and that the sense of trust a participant had would have been based on prior in-person interaction before the Covid-19 lockdown. I wonder what implications this has in relation to video streamed Mass? Perhaps it’s not only the sense of “oneness” but something far deeper that is lacking in order to maintain that perception of belonging to the body of Christ? My husband and I watched the Easter Vigil live streamed from our cathedral and came away feeling peculiarly even more isolated. Neither of us has watched a video Mass since.

    As we are both in high risk categories we haven’t attended since the end of February, our sole contact with our pastor has been through his requests for info updates to our parish website which my husband maintains. Our bishop has declared parents are now responsible for sacramental preparation for their children and there are currently no nursing home masses. I don’t know what clergy in dioceses such as ours are busying themselves with but if they’re not reaching out with phone calls to parishioners, and I know of no one who has received any such call, then how have they been ministering to their flock? Not all parishes maintain a website bulletin and/or blog and of those who do many no longer have their office staff, having laid them off. Our own is volunteer based but without it there would be no contact with our parish.

    Our churches have recently opened for Masses but with a strict limit on numbers. Volunteers are required to act as greeters with screening questions, instructing attendees to provide their names and contact information. Ushers seat the faithful observing proper distancing. Singing is forbidden, masks must be worn. More volunteers are required to stay behind after Mass to clean and disinfect in a two step process. Confession is by appointment only. It has been clearly stated that without this army of volunteers there will be no Masses.

    Many of us not in attendance continue with personal scripture reading, prayer, and checking in on one another. It has become clear to most of us in this situation that with the exception of the Sacraments we are managing without the hierarchy but missing the beauty you write about. If it is the will of God that our Church continues on in future perhaps He has a plan to reform it. I pray the comfy chair cardinals are receptive to His will because as it now stands, many who have been sitting on the fence with regard to leaving have made their decision not to return.

    • Thank you for sharing that. It is good for those of us in England to know what is going on in your part of Canada. You have highlighted many shared concerns and what is, alarmingly, an all-too-common experience. All I can do myself is pray and go on asking questions, in the hope hat others may respond. May Hod belss you!

  12. Thank you for writing about beauty and the Church. My soul is responding to your thoughts, but I can’t seem to express its cries into words beyond the basic. But, I know that beauty and the Church are synonymous, as light and color or music and vibration. It’s clear there is brokenness. I join all of you in praying for God’s new thing. Fragrance coming …

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