Prosopal presence: our current conundrum

When we meet online, are we meeting ‘face to face’? My colleague Elizabeth Shively gave us an excellent sermon this morning in our series on 1Thess.; I won’t repeat what she said (its on our church FB page, and well worth the watch), but before she began my attention was caught by a word in the reading. Throughout the letter Paul expresses his regrets that he is absent from the Thessalonian believers, his longing to see them, and his eagerness for news of them. In 3:10 he prays ‘Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face’ (NRSV) ‘May see you face to face’ translates τὸ ἰδεῖν ὑμῶν τὸ πρόσωπον; it was the word πρόσωπον that caught my eye (I was following the reading in the original, as I usually do); it’s a word I’ve thought about a lot. Paul made a similar point , using the same word, twice, in 2:17: ἀπορφανισθέντες ἀφ᾿ ὑμῶν … προσώπῳ οὐ καρδίᾳ, περισσοτέρως ἐσπουδάσαμεν τὸ πρόσωπον ὑμῶν ἰδεῖν… (‘…separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed … to see you face to face.’ NRSV) Here, there is a contrast between being with them ‘in person’ (πρόσωπον) and ‘in heart’ (καρδίᾳ), reminiscent of 1Cor. 5:3 ἀπὼν τῷ σώματι, παρὼν δὲ τῷ πνεύματι (‘absent in body [σώμα], present in spirit [πνεύμα]’), as well as the same expression of desire to see facially [τὸ πρόσωπον]. How does Paul’s urgent longing to be re-united with the Thessalonian sisters and brothers relate to our enforced absence from each other today? The Corinthian text is easy: we are apart bodily without question, and together in spirit, without question. The Thessalonian ones are more difficult. πρόσωπον is more difficult, as already the translations from the NRSV above indicate: does it mean ‘face’ or ‘person’? Well, yes; the semantic range stretches at least that wide—see the historical note at the end of this post. But in this linguistic imprecision our current experience of church fellowship sits: many of us, at least, are seeing the faces of our sisters and brothers through video conferencing; we are talking, interacting, so there is some real togetherness, some experience of coming together for worship and fellowship. We are not bodily present, however, and so we are not fully personally present to each other. We are living in a grey area in the middle of the semantic range of the word πρόσωπον. Paul longed to be with the Thessalonians prosopally; did that mean just seeing their faces, or bodily presence, or what? Of course, these are not distinctions he could have made; lacking videoconferencing solutions, bodily presence was necessary to seeing faces. Almost everything he talks about longing for in the letter is achievable in online meeting: he wants to pastor them, to observe and interrogate their growth in faith, to be able to correct error, to offer exhortation and encouragement. All of this is possible online. In the end, however, is the instruction to ‘greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss’ (5:26); there comes a point where bodies matter. If Paul could have met with the Thessalonians over Teams or Zoom, he would have jumped at the chance, I am sure; he could have heard of the answers to his constant prayers, and offered the encouragement and advice he longed to give—but he would still have wanted to kiss them. I don’t think many of us need to be told that our online gatherings are sub-optimal; kissing may not be quite our culture, but hugging might be, and singing without question is; we want to be together bodily. But Paul in Thessalonians certainly reminds us that what we have is not nothing; we can meet face to face, after a fashion, we can hear of each other’s faith, and offer encouragement and counsel. We are not simply apart, though we are scattered. If we are to be church well through this time, I suspect it will be in part by reflecting seriously on the limits, but also the possibilities of this grey prosopal space we are now meeting in; perhaps thinking about Greek semantic fields can help us with that? Historical note: [This is all from memory, as I am separated from my library…] πρόσωπον is a very difficult word to translate, and visibly changes meaning over time. In earliest extant usage (Homer), it referred fairly simply to the face; from there, it came to be the term for the mask an actor in a Greek drama would wear, from which sense another meaning of ‘character’ (in a play), and so ‘actor in a narrative’; from this the sense of...

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On not having closed our churches

Language matters. It matters more in how it is heard than in how it is meant. If we want to communicate certain things, then disciplined use of language can help us, because it will improve the chances of what we want to say being heard, rather than being misunderstood. There was a time when we British Baptists would not have thought of calling the building we met in for worship a ‘church’. We knew that the church was the congregation, gathered together by God, covenanted to each other before God. If the church habitually met in a particular building, we called that a ‘chapel’. ‘Church,’ we once understood, meant people, saved by grace, making expansive vows to each other because God has called us together. ‘Chapel,’ we used to know, meant a building, where the church can conveniently congregate. [This is for us Baptists—and of course for others, although I do not presume to identify those traditions that would be happy to be defined by this point—other faithful followers of our King Jesus will disagree, and so will define things differently.] This old, almost lost, tradition, seems important just now. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are alive and active, and doing wonderful Kingdom work, spreading the gospel and doing justice. Perhaps this present strange season will teach us that there was value in the old language: we should not identify ‘chapel’ and ‘church’ because the former is incidental to us, the latter the definitive core of who we are. Our chapels are closed—and, on Sundays in particular, that is a great sadness to us, because we long to gather together for worship. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and active. Announcing the gospel, however they can; serving the needy; comforting those who mourn; praying for the needs of the fellowship, the community, and the world; living out the call of the Kingdom. For us Baptists, our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and alive and active; the one is an inconvenience; the other a vital gospel...

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On ‘Kitchen Table Eucharists’: a plea to my Anglican friends

It is, to my regret, nearly ten years since I last joined in worship with the small fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church in Cumbria. My memories of the fellowship are warm; my memories of the building in which they meet, and of the garden behind it, are vivid. The building is an ancient cottage, registered for worship in 1709. There is no historical record of what changes were made as it was registered for worship, but very probably the kitchen table was the only table, and so became the place where the Eucharist was celebrated for those people. The Baptists had begun in Hawkshead in 1678, at a time when the Church of England was aggressively devoted to persecuting anyone who would not worship according to its formularies (even though then, as now, it could not agree on what its formularies actually meant). I know the Baptist stories; others will tell the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Catholic tales—and the stories that do not fit into any of these denominations. In my tradition, John Bunyan was famously imprisoned for his Baptist faith; Elizabeth Gaunt was burnt at the stake in public for hers, denied the customary ‘kindness’ of a quick death by strangulation before the spectacle. I could add scores of other names from my own memory, people who I have read and studied, whose faith and courage I have learnt from, whose piety has formed my own; people who are my mothers and fathers in the faith. I could add tens of thousands of names if I had reference to books. The persecution was savage and widespread. It was also systematically prosecuted and vocally encouraged by Anglican clergy and bishops. Although a measure of toleration came with the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the Clarendon Code (which, inter alia, forbade meetings for prayer of more than five people unless they were reciting forms from the 1662 BCP) was not fully repealed until well into the nineteenth century. When William Dennyson of Hawkshead registered his cottage as a meeting place in 1709, it seems clear that memories of persecution were still fresh. The building carefully appeared, from the street, to be still a cottage, and did so until 1876, when the present ecclesial-looking windows were installed. In the garden a baptistry was created by a clever damming of a stream, and then shrubs were grown to conceal its site, and the path that led to it. When we were last there—and today, I assume—you could walk the garden completely unaware of the baptismal pool, until someone showed you the carefully-pruned branches that needed to be pushed aside to open the path down. Hidden sacramental spaces are a common theme of Christian persecution; normal domestic paraphernalia are repurposed to allow worship to happen. For one example, a kitchen table often becomes the site of eucharistic celebration. The phrase ’kitchen table Eucharists’ seems to have become, in the last few weeks, the chosen sneer of a number of Anglicans angry at their Bishops’ guidance, revised yesterday, on clergy not entering their churches. I have no view at all on that guidance; I know that my understanding of ‘church’, and ‘sacred space’ is simply different from my Anglican sisters and brothers. I am concerned, as others have been, about the denigration of domestic space implied by this sneer, and by the gendered implications of that. I am at least as much concerned by the implied criticism of the faith and practice of our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world right now, who find the kitchen table the only eucharistic site available to them. Most seriously, however, I remember William Dennyson, John Bunyan, Elizabeth Gaunt, scores of others I could name, tens of thousands whose names I could discover—and at least as many again who are nameless. For nearly three decades they celebrated the Eucharist on kitchen tables, in Hawkshead and across England, because Anglican bishops and Anglican priests were active and aggressive in having them thrown into jail, or even burnt alive at the stake, if they did it anywhere public. For over three centuries they, and their co-religionists, were prevented from celebrating the Eucharist as they might have wished by oppressive laws, pressed by the Anglican establishment. I am not an Anglican and I do not live in England; the policies of the Church of England are no business of mine. But for office-holders in that denomination to denigrate ‘kitchen table Eucharists’ is for them to trample once again on the faith and lives of people who, through reading, I have grown to know and love, people who, at their predecessors’ hands, were extensively persecuted, people of...

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