Church as an “Ecclesia”– Facing the Novel Coronavirus

As the novel coronavirus outbreak has become a pandemic, churches are also taking various measures to prevent infection.

At the current point of time as I am writing this (on March 15), five out of eleven dioceses of Nippon Sei Ko Kai, Anglican Church in Japan have suspended public worship.  Currently, worship has not been completely suspended within the Diocese of Chubu, but some churches have suspended worships on Sundays due to the outbreak of those infected in the local area.  There is a possibility that we may have to suspend worship in our diocese depending on future circumstances.

This virus may infect other people before specific symptoms appear, and one may become a source of infection before realizing it, and may also be infected from those around you.  Such circumstances may happen.  Also, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare are warning people “to avoid gathering in groups in areas with poor ventilation where people gather closely together” to prevent infection.  Many churches apply to this very condition, and there is a possibility that they have an unspecified number of people going in and out.  Considering this, suspension of worship is unavoidable as an emergency measure. 

On the other hand, given that a church is an “ecclesia (a gathering, to gather),” it goes without saying that it is not something easily solved by just saying “we are suspending our church worship due to danger.”  However, this infection can be fatal depending on conditions and cannot be treated like a common cold.  Because church is a community where it values life, this matter needs to be handled carefully.

At Diocese of Tokyo where I am temporarily assigned, a video of the Holy Eucharist presided over by the bishop is being distributed as one measure being taken during the suspension of worship, and this has been viewed by many people.  In that process, an unexpected way of use has emerged.

When a certain priest visited a hospitalized church member and showed this video on the smartphone, the patient was in tears of joy and said, “I am so happy because I have not been able to go to church for a while.”  I have also heard that elderlies who have been at home for a long time are repeatedly watching the video and singing the hymns.  Before we start saying how we are not able to go to church or take part in the sacrament on Sundays, I was made to think that we should reflect on just how much our thoughts we put into for these people so far. 

This issue was recently raised at a meeting of the Ecumenism Dialogue with Catholic and Lutheran churches.  Lutheran churches have decided not to hold the Holy Eucharist for the time being, and Catholic Church Archdiocese Nagasaki recommends family members and others read the bible on the day and share while mass is being suspended.  I have learned from both churches that in this case, it is a time to recall that we live on His Word, and we are invited to share it with people close to us.

Ecclesiastical churches must not stop gathering at any time.  However, they must also be open to the many possibilities of specific “ways of gathering.”  Where is God urging churches to turn and act in this time of difficulty?

Revd David Shintaro Ichihara

“Religious Activities” of the Church

The theme at the Tokyo Diocese Ministers Workshop held the other day was on “Church Finance.”  Cases were introduced where profits from bazaars have been taxed these recent years, and lending its storage room for the community’s disaster prevention were not seen as a part of religious activities, and therefore became subject to taxation.  Surprised at the same time, but to be honest, I was infuriated at the act of the public offices, who do not hold direct relationship to the church to limit the activities without consulting.  I also felt this kind of view by the tax office is something we need to question about on our own views of the church.        

“What is church?” is one of the basic themes of theology, also called ecclesiology.  There is also “communion ecclesiology” which has drawn considerable attention in the field during these few years.  This is just one “way of thinking” and includes many variations, but I believe this is a powerful model of the church in Japan.

Communion ecclesiology, by placing its focus on various “communions,” has a possibility of going beyond the legal and systematic understanding, and emphasizes the correlation between the universal churches spreading worldwide and the individual churches.  In other words, “a church is not just a building nor a group managed as an organization.  Christians work in various ways and through their creating a relationship with the surrounding, is born this ‘communion’ where the true form of church is seen.”      

Within the society such as Japan, when a church attempts to form such a communion, it does not only remain in the old category of Christianity, but it stands to reason that it will form relations with the local community and various organizations.  There lies the possibility for churches in Japan.  I have been given the opportunity for quite a while to work at schools, and from my experiences, there is a form of a “church” within Christian schools for sure.  I am convinced that Christ’s doings go beyond the realms of “Christianity.”  The works of the church are done in that sense to spread in various forms this “communion” which is created in places that go beyond the framework of conventional “churches.”  It is an important work of the church in Japan. 

Going back to the story on tax matters, we need to question the view that limits “religious activities” to a very narrow field.  Towards the idea of bazaars and cooperation with the local community not considered as “religious activities,” we must state and actually show that “Christianity is not a narrow-minded religion.”  On the contrary, if churches are to turn towards the thinking that “it is good enough as long as churches hold their Sunday services,” then the act itself proves that the people themselves have affirmed to the view of the public. 

When we try to create the “church is communion,” one should see the shape of the church which would never have been imagined until now.  Believe that Christ is with us and works with us, so why not put our heads together?

Revd David Shintaro Ichihara
Okaya St. Barnaba’s Church

Energy of Life

Ever since I was installed into the holy order, I have gained experience through working many years in academic institutions.  Being a little different from ordinary churches, I feel I have been “trained” to tell and explain about Christianity without having to use any church terminologies to those around me who are mostly non-Christians.  This was for me to “find God in many places around the world.”

Among them, I have the impression that the concept of “resurrection” is very misunderstood.  In a word, “the dead comes back to life” and that’s it.  However, this is different from Christ’s teachings of “resurrection” and “the resurrection of life.”  What I feel at many funerals is that even if the dead does not “come back to life,” there is, for sure, a “resurrection of life.”  It is not the biological “life” that lives in the body, but “life” given to us by God and our belief in the “resurrection of life.”  As a means to explain this, I would like to entrust the image of the word “the energy of life” without being afraid of misunderstandings. 

During my time as a theological student, I visited the Taize Community and had the chance to meet many people.  The one which left a great impression on me was at a community center for the disabled, supported by our brothers and currently accepts workers from JOCS (Japan Overseas Christian Medical Cooperative Service).

One day, I accompanied Ms. Naomi Iwamoto, a dispatched worker, to a home whose child related to the Center.  The boy had a severe mental disability and was able to hold any kind of conversation.  However, it was even hard for me, who had only visited once, to leave.  It made me sad, and I ran outside and cried.  I am cheered up by this “energy of life” in him every time I remember that day.

A group, whose members have some kind of disability, had just started at this center.  A woman, who was engaged during her college years, became unable to walk after developing a tuberculosis of bone.  Her engagement was broken off, dropped out of school, and confined herself in her home.  She got herself involved with the center as a user, but when Ms. Iwamoto and the other staff saw her, they felt the woman had a gift of being a counselor.  The woman became a counselor and appointed her as leader of the group.  The other day, when I saw the woman’s name as a group leader on the information for gathering which supports this women’s group, I thanked the Lord from my heart to the staff who have seen the “energy of life” within her and continued supporting her. “To have a share in the resurrection of life” means that God’s “energy of life” fills all parts of the world.  These people have taught me to realize and believe that God gives us this “energy of life” that is within us.