Being Church During A Pandemic:
Where have we been; where are we now; where are we going?
Already, I think I can say that one of my defining memories of 2020 will be sitting at Clwb-y-Bont on a normal Tuesday evening, at the weekly pub quiz back in January when a question about the name of some new strand of virus that had emerged in Wuhan, China stumped half of my team. Since then, local floods, a national lockdown and a global pandemic have turned our lives upside down and the words coronavirus and Covid-19 have come to dominate our lives. Last week we passed the grim milestone of over 600 000 deaths worldwide – the worst of the per capita death rates coming from these shores – whilst the long-term effects of the world’s health, wealth, social structures and religious practices can only be hypothesized. Many are suffering. Many will suffer. This has, of course, always been true and whilst the pandemic’s impact has been most sharply felt by those who were already suffering at the hands of global inequalities, on an individual level, the virus paid no heed to human-made borders, to privilege or social status in its transmission. The truth of the interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity – of all creation – has never been so evident. And, through painted rainbows and weekly clapping; through notes to neighbours and phone calls to family; through daily acts of kindness and community, we have embraced this truth, one that was always clear to see for some. Four months in and with the knowledge that we won’t be ‘back to normal by Christmas’, it’s time to reflect on how we have responded as churches; where we are now; and how our church practices and identity might (need to) develop as we go forward.
Where have we been?
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 1 Corinthians 3:16
We might summarize the last four months as the first phase in our response to the pandemic – the phase in which our normal church practices had to abruptly stop as we hurriedly worked out how we could continue to offer some sort of weekly worship, pastoral care within our community, and service to the wider community in a time of fear and flux. Church communities across Wales, the UK and world have responded in hugely diverse ways, each and every one seeking to respond in a way that is authentic to their social context, resources and demographics. With the exception of obvious outliers, there has been no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ model of this and yet I am certainly encouraged by the actions we have taken –
Traditional worship – So far, alongside some signposts to daily/weekly material online, on the radio and on tv, we have engaged in some Easter liturgies and weekly sermons – now with a communal prayer and musical input (the latter online only). The creative input outside our churches has also been a visible way of offering thanks and praise to God.
Pastoral care – It has been a joy, though not a surprise, to see the encouraging and compassionate pastoral care that we try to offer one another continue during these strange few months. The weekly conference call at Castle Square and elders/pastoral buddies system at St. David’s Uniting are obvious examples of this whilst the news sheet and continued use of notes, cards, emails and other methods of church member-to-member communication has enabled us to give each other practical and prayerful support at this time. For those online, the midweek reflections, Facebook and WhatsApp group have provided further opportunity for informal chat, community conversation and a simply a reason to smile. No system is perfect, of course, and as with the other aspects of our church work, we are sorry if anyone has felt overlooked by this as we continue to explore other avenues of offering such care from a distance. All suggestions welcome.
Service to/with the wider community. Perhaps this has been the hardest part of our church life to maintain during a lockdown state and yet we have, in a number of ways, partnered with God’s mission of love to the world through our community involvement over the last few months which has included:
- Raising awareness and money for Christian Aid through our cookbook fundraising and offering of money from funeral services taken.
- Supported the Foodbank through personal donations and the offering of money from funeral services.
- Involvement in online discussions on a range of social justice issues including Black Lives Matter and justice for Palestinians.
- Funeral ministry.
- The invitation for prayers from the community.
- Continued involvement with the local refugee community.
- Gifts sent to local care home staff.
In summary, we – the people – sculpted by the Creator, transformed through Christ and enlivened by the Spirit, are the Church. Buildings, gathered routine worship, post-service coffee and chat…all these things might aid our participation in God’s mission of love to the cosmos but they aren’t necessary for it. We have been church; we still are church; and, by God’s grace, we will continue to be church, whatever the future might have in store.
Where are we now?
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” John 6:28
After establishing a new status quo over the last four months, we are now entering the next phase in which we might review what we have been doing so far and consider how we might respond to the fact that religious communities are now allowed to gather in church buildings in Wales, albeit with very different services of worship. The Government rules and denominational advice on this is changing all the time and I encourage us to pray for leaders in both the Government and the denominations as they wrestle with the challenges and opportunities of the day. As of Thursday 23rd July, the Welsh Government is allowing gatherings for public worship but still recommends that ‘where possible, places of worship continue to broadcast worship or other events to avoid large gatherings and to continue to reach those individuals who are self-isolating or vulnerable to COVID-19’.
Once again, with the proviso that all legal requirements are in place, there is no right or wrong way for churches to respond to the opportunity for opening for services whilst we also must acknowledge that the health and well-being of the whole community is of prime importance to both God and to us. I am extremely grateful to the elders of both churches who have diligently and faithfully read through the lengthy reading material and list of conditions that any churches considering reopening for gathered worship must put in place. After a great deal of time of prayerful reflection and group discussion, the elders have decided to respond as follows:
Castle Square United Reformed Church – Though far from an easy decision, as is the case with many church communities across the UK, the elders of Castle Square have decided that the church building will not open for gathered worship in the short term. Their reasoning for this was multifaceted but focused on three main points:
- The elders did not feel that they had the resources to meet all the requirements needed in order to reopen the church building without considerable risk to health.
- The elders felt that even if these resources could be found, that the vast majority of church members – and usual worship leaders – would not want to risk their health by returning to gathered worship at the present time, particularly considering the concerns about the unknown impact of the seasonal weather ahead.
- Even if the first issue was resolved and members were willing to physically gather inside, it was felt that the severely restricted nature of services during this time would make an inauthentic and unsatisfactory worship experience for most participants.
Whilst this decision will, undoubtedly, be a disappointment to many members of the Castle Square community, I strongly believe that it is a faithful and wise one. The elders stressed the fact that this was a pause on usual activities and that the community will regather at the beloved building for worship and witness as soon as it is felt safe so to do. I will be further communicating with all Castle Square church members about this in the coming weeks.
St. David’s Uniting Church – Though many different positions were expressed and explored, the elders of St. David’s Uniting Church initially agreed to a trial of weekly gathered worship from 30th August at the earliest and – after walking through the practicalities of how this could work at an on-site meeting – later added the proviso of this being contingent upon a significant number of members wanting to do this.
The responses to the church questionnaire suggested that only a third of respondents would feel safe enough to regather for worship as soon as we could whilst the question about what members missed most regarding church services largely led to things that would still be missing in the short term – most notably singing, chatting over coffee, and cwtches! Thus, we are asking all members of our church family (anyone who might attend – not just formal members) to read through both the below outline of services which we could facilitate at this time and, crucially, the attached personal risk assessment which reminds us of the very real risk that we might be taking in returning to gathered worship at this time. Indeed, risk is a combination of the likelihood of something happening and the seriousness if it did – and this document is very helpful in enabling individuals to consider the risk to themselves, and, therefore, to others. We might all feel healthy and strong now but that it is true of most people right up until they do not! The majority of our congregations are in the age group of people more vulnerable to the worst excesses of this virus and we have a duty of care both to each other and to the wider community with whom we might interact.
We are then asking you – via the short online questionnaire sent out or by telephoning Marilyn Tomlinson (please speak to your elder if you do not have her telephone number) – to inform us if you would want to return to weekly gathered worship as soon as possible, or whether you would want to wait until the risk to your health has reduced. For those who feel comfortable doing so, we also invite you to inform us of your personal risk assessment score as this might also influence future planning.
Following legal requirements and denominational guidelines, a gathered service of worship at St. David’s Uniting Church within the next few months will reflect the following:
- The wearing of masks is strongly encouraged and might well become mandatory.
- Hand sanitising (provided on entrance and exit) and social distancing will be in place. Members will, at least initially, be required to sit on their own with a 2-metre distance between them and others.
- A one-way system will be in place, queuing may be necessary and attendees will be required to fill up the seats from the front.
- There will be no communal singing and no music from the organ.
- We will not celebrate Holy Communion.
- We will open the doors to attendees from 10:30pm, start the service at the usual time and will limit the service to around 30 minutes to reduce the risk of transmission.
- The toilets will be available for use before and after the service but not during.
- Those with no mobility issues might be required to sit in the gallery and/or to help with stewarding.
- Refreshments will not be offered after the service and you will need to provide your own water if needed.
- You will be encouraged not to enter if you, or anyone from your household, have shown signs of any of the symptoms of the virus.
- A retiring offering will be available, with members encouraged to give cheques or notes rather than coins (but you might choose to save giving for a few weeks so not to give more than you usually do)
- You will be dismissed in rows and actively discouraged from stopping to chat as you leave.
- You will be discouraged from sharing a car to/from the church with anyone outside your household. (If you choose to share a car, please stay as far apart as possible within the car and keep windows open).
It’s quite a list, isn’t it?! Which is why some congregations have decided, for now, not to reopen for gathered worship. You might well compare these restrictions to the fact that people will soon be able to meet in pubs and restaurants in Wales but, once again, we must remember that those over 70 are most at risk whilst the decision to open places of hospitality has largely been driven by economic forces – something which we do not have to consider.
Having said all this, for some people, the opportunity to simply gather in a shared place and time and to communally listen to the Bible being read, prayers being offered and a sermon preached might well be incentive enough to risk gathered worship again and so, true to our theological foundations, we want to discern the way forward together. Therefore, please do respond to the questionnaire or ring Maralyn by August 2nd.
Whatever is decided, we will review the decision regularly and once again explore the wider ways in which we can encourage worship, fellowship and community outreach at this time. Possibilities include socially distanced gatherings outside; increased use of Zoom; an online live-streamed service and conference-call style services of worship on the telephone.
Where are we going?
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10
Whatever is to next happen in terms of the coronavirus pandemic, the Church in the more economically developed world, including us at Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting Church, was already needing to consider adaptions, cultural changes, endings and new ventures in order to be financially solvent and, far more importantly, contextually relevant to the community in which we are called to share and show the gospel.
Whilst some will want to get back as close to ‘the norm’ as soon as they can, others are aware that our ‘norm’ would soon have to change anyway and so are choosing to use this time to re-imagine what the church could look like as a kingdom community fit for the 21st century. In many ways – perhaps alongside environmental concerns and global inequality – this can be seen as the fundamental question for the contemporary Church. Could this time of rest and reflection for many, struggle and suffering for others, cause us to embrace change as we take our first faltering steps back to some kind of gathered worship?
For us at Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting Church, change will most definitely be coming whatever we decide. Possible changes in ministry deployment, our ageing demographic and the many and varied possible effects of the current crisis (not least on grants and premises income) all ensure this. And yet it should be acknowledged that both Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting Church have, to different degrees, recently experienced a time of numerical stability or even growth (though it might be noted that this has largely be the result of the closure of other church communities) and, in many ways, are in a strong position when it comes to resources. Thus any change we face need not be made out of a sense of scarcity and surrender but of abundance and adventure with God. One might wish to compare this time to the seven years of plenty that Egypt experienced before seven years of famine – seven years that were survived through God’s provision, human dreams and faithful planning.
In order to help us with in this venture, a Vision Committee (yes, an oxymoron if ever there was one!) will be established to dream, explore and bring different opportunities back to the wider church for communal discernment. More details of this are to come.
In the meantime, we shall continue to pray for those suffering, listen to the marginalized, comfort the bereaved, hold authorities to account, hope boldly, practice gratitude and generosity…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
And as for our worship, let us heed the words of Presbyterian pastor and poet, Thom Schuman, who reminds us –
‘We haven’t cancelled worship; we’ve cancelled a religious service at a specific time, in a specific place, on a specific day, but folks will still worship God when they are caring for the grandkids and walking their dogs; worship as they serve beside Jesus at food banks and picking up groceries for a neighbour; worship when they share the Spirit’s peace by singing songs over the phone to a parent; worship when they work from home; worship when they endure extra shifts in nursing homes and group homes; worship when they email someone far away and wave to a stranger across the street; worship when they take toilet paper to a homeless shelter and volunteer at a polling place. We haven’t cancelled worship, just the “official” part that may be the smallest part of it all.’
 Whilst technical hiccups and alternative ways of watching can skew statistics, the Sunday morning youtube sermons have often been watched by double the amount of people who attend a regular Sunday service at our combined congregations, including some who have not/cannot attend on a usual Sunday
 Comparisons with other church communities are largely unhelpful but I thought it interesting when I was informed this week that my ‘sending church’ in Orpington, which has a larger and younger weekly congregation than either Castle Square or St. David’s Uniting, has also decided to continue with their adapted worship and not return to gathered services for the foreseeable.
 The results of which will be managed in adherence to GDPR regulations.