Earlier in the year I wrote a blog for MC about links between the Environment Catastrophe and Covid-19. Since then we have had ten weeks in lock down, with some people maintaining seclusion because of a need to shield, and many businesses still waiting to reopen.
The churches are in the same position as businesses which remain closed because what they do is considered to be particularly risky in terms of infection and the R rate. But is this the case and does it apply to all churches, all the time? What lessons have we learnt about being Church in lockdown? What will we do that is different in the new normal?
Here are a few reflections.
It seems likely that churches will begin to release from lockdown over the next few weeks. However, was it right to have a blanket closing of all churches wherever they are? I think this was a mistake. Of course it was right to close churches and cathedrals with large congregations and large numbers of visitors – this was clearly a source of mass infection in some places and it would have been totally wrong to persist in meeting together in those circumstances. Protection of the vulnerable and the wider community is a responsibility of all. But why not allow clergy to stream at least Sunday services from within the church building?
We have been fortunate in our present age to have the internet and sophisticated methods of streaming services into people’s own homes which have turned out to be much appreciated and seen as more personal than a service on television, which was all that previous generations in similar circumstances could have accessed. Many people have “attended” the internet services, who normally go to church only rarely if at all, so clearly this has fed a need which wasn’t met or even known of before.
But then a question has arisen as to what sort of worship can be attempted on line? Some churches, my own included, has decided that a Sunday service which chiefly consists of the Word and Prayer is most appropriate. Others, have chosen to broadcast some form of Eucharist in which people can participate to whatever extent feels right to them – either by listening and feeling part of the worshipping community, or by going a stage further and lighting a candle at home and having bread and wine at the moment of communion. Those wanting a Sunday service, or weekday prayers, can shop around and find something which suits their own needs. This is all wonderful and speaks to the variety of needs within our communities.
It feels as if this has been a good thing which has come out of something very bad and which I hope the churches will find ways they can continue even after the current Covid-19 situation is over or at least improving. As our elderly populations become more au fait with modern technology there will be more demand for access to internet worship and prayer. It won’t go away. But I worry that some of our elderly church members will be feeling totally excluded from their church community by the time lockdown is over, despite efforts to contact people regularly by phone and the offering of telephone prayers.
Was it right to close all churches for everything? In fact some churches will have remained open, at least part time, if they have had another community use such as a village post office or a foodbank. This raises the question about the church as a place for private prayer. Not everyone has access to quiet space at home and some would undoubtedly have welcomed the opportunity to slip into a church to pray alone. For the future, we must think about how this could be facilitated, otherwise we are failing in part of our main purpose as Church which is to serve people in their greatest need.
I am glad to be able to report that when my own Vicar heard of a fire in a block of flats nearby, he immediately offered the church as a refuge – an offer gratefully taken up by the emergency services and evacuees who needed a place to wait while alternative sleeping arrangements were made and the building made safe. Refreshments were also offered and accepted, while maintaining social distancing of course.
And what of rural churches, with tiny congregations? Surely they could have been allowed to offer Sunday services with no problems about social distancing? Many of these churches remain open in normal times during the week for the occasional church crawler and solitary in need of peace – why on earth could they not have remained open? Some rural churches have been locked for the first time in years!
Obviously this won’t work if rural churches simply draw large numbers simply because they are open and for the future much thought will have to go into how this could be managed. But, surely … ?
All churches and charities are now having to look even harder at their finances as their normal incomes have reduced or dried up completely. Again, looking ahead, we have to see this as an opportunity to make use of modern technology. For example, Historic Churches Trust annual Ride and Stride events may perhaps go ahead with the creation of a simple app and QR codes which can be read on a smartphone. These can be used both to register that someone has visited a church, and as a means of donation to a church. A number of churches already have these – why not all? Other fundraising initiatives could include virtual church tours on YouTube with a donation button.
There is an urgent need for theologians and church leaders to discuss all the questions which have arisen in the crisis and to put forward some guidelines and principles for future pandemics. It is unlikely that this will be the last! And of course we need to make use of some of the technical solutions we have found to increase church involvement with the wider community.