No, this is not the doubting question of a despairing priest. Nor is it a cynical query from a despiser of religious institutions.

It is a real question, a question emerging from three months of physical distancing forced upon us by the blight of COVID-19.

Has anything essential been lost in this time when we have been unable to gather physically for public worship? Does zoomchurch adequately fill the gap in place of sharing space in an actual building? Will we return with a renewed awareness of the importance of gathering as faith communities when we are ever able to meet together in our church buildings? Or, will this time of enforced isolation and the promise of a “second wave” of infection, cause people to choose increasingly to avoid gatherings larger than a few?

If this COVID crisis at least prods us to ask serious questions, it will not have been for nothing that we have suffered through these past confusing and often tragic months.

Obviously, I have a professional interest in coming to a positive answer to the question, “Who needs church?” I have spent the past forty years of my life working within the church. Although I hope my identity does not depend upon this particular facet of my life, it would at least be sad if I should prove unable to come up with at least a slightly convincing argument to suggest that there is a valuable place in the human community for the regular faith gatherings which in my tradition we call “church.”

So, “Who needs church?” What value might there be in this curious practice of putting aside an hour or two each week to sit in a pew with other worshippers?

I understand that “church” is not a physical location or a particular building. “Church” is people. It is people who intend, in whatever way they are able, to support one another in opening their hearts more deeply to an awareness of that ineffable presence we call “God” and that, in Christian tradition, we say we see embodied in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. So “church” might be two people meeting in a home for prayer. “Church” can be six people meeting for bible study, or a group of people committing to act together to serve the poor and the marginalized. “Church” might be one person reaching out with care and compassion for another person who is struggling.

But, for the purposes of this discussion, “church” is confined to the more narrow focus of a group of people who gather weekly at an appointed time in a particular place for the primary goal of sharing in a corporate act of worship. What is the purpose of such gatherings? I will share the first one today and the others in days to come.

(much of what I try to suggest below is said much more beautifully and powerfully here:

1.  Transcendence – This is the starting point for everything about church. There are many important functions “church” performs; but, before anything else church is about transcendence. It does not stop at transcendence; but transcendence is where church starts. Everything else flows from the desire to deepen our awareness of and reverence for the transcendent reality we call “God” which Christians believe was fully embodied in the historic person of Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is reported to have asked,

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

This the fundamental question “church” exists to keep alive. Before anything else church serves to raise up the possibility that there is a dimension to life that exists beyond the physical material realm of space and time. Church calls us to open to the realm of meaning, purpose and value. It upholds the possibility that all life is imbued with a hidden sacred dimension that is the source of true value for all forms of life.

Transcendence is not escape from the messy realities of life. It is the ground in which grows our awareness that all life is sacred and therefore all aspects of this created order are of inestimable value. It is the source of our call as human beings to honour creation and to live with reverence for all life forms on this earth.

So much of the world around us adopts a worldview that begins and ends with the material. We need to gather with people who affirm the “more than” aspect of life and seek to open more deeply to the mysterious depths beneath the surface of life. We gamble on the possibility that transcendence is real and important here and present in this physical tangible material realm. We need to gather with others who are willing take the risk of making real this depth dimension of life.