When will the church be open again?
The last day that our churches were open for normal Sunday worship was March 15th, and since then we have been in ‘lockdown’ - our building locked and closed...
All groups, services and events have been suspended and - apart from a single nominated person for each church - nobody has been entering either of our churches.
With lockdown now starting to be eased - aligned with the Government ‘roadmap’ for the future return to a more normal life - you might be wondering what this might mean for churches?
When will we be able to host baptisms and weddings? What about funerals? Can we book parties or allow our groups to re-start? When will Sunday worship re-commence?
The truth is that we don’t currently have definitive answers to those specific questions. But we are starting to get the beginnings of guidance coming from the wider church. And as other European churches start to ease lockdown, we are able to see ‘models’ of what might soon happen here.
Here is my best guess at how things are going to happen over coming weeks and months, based on the latest information that I have received.
The first thing that I need to say is that we should not expect to return to ‘church as we knew it’ any time soon. It is quite evident that the easing of lockdown is going to be a ‘slow and steady’, with incremental steps and pauses to examine the impact of those steps.
So, we need to let go of the notion that there is going to be specific date, perhaps in a month or two, when someone will flick a switch - and everything will go back to how it was back in February.
That’s not how it is going to happen.
Instead we are going to see a series of gradual steps. As vicar, I am already allowed to go into the church and pray or stream services. And, before long, we might be able to invite others to come into the church ro pray.
If and when that happens, we will attempt to ensure that our churches become much more accessible to people, by opening up at various times during the week as well as Sunday.
But, keep in mind, that no services or meetings will be taking place.
The next easing of restrictions is likely to bring small gatherings for worship – not only for regular services, but also small funerals, christenings and so on. Again, social distancing is going to be the key driver here. We are going to need to get out the tape measure and calculator to work out just how many people are going to be able to come into the building at once, whilst still keeping 2 metres apart!
Many of the regular features of corporate worship are likely to be off limits. We won’t be able to share the Peace, have coffee, share the common cup – even singing seems unlikely to be allowed if the experience of the German Church is any guide.
And, of course, it is quite likely that we will all need to wear face masks. How do we feel about sitting through a church service in a mask? Strange times...
As the picture becomes clearer, the leadership of the church will need to carefully consider whether we want to hold services at all at this stage – given the likely compromises that could be imposed upon us.
This is especially the case if, as seems possible, those over 70 or in the shielded categories are not going to be allowed to participate. A significant proportion of our congregation fall into one (or both) of those categories and would therefore be excluded. Not what we want at all!
You see, it’s a fundamental principle that we want our churches to be places of welcome for ALL, isn’t it?
Whilst we fully recognise the need for the restrictions, it just goes against the grain for us to have to effectively turn people away from church services. Is it going to be preferable to wait a while until we can gather properly? That’s a delicate choice that will need to be considered in the course of time.
Whilst we do not have precise timelines, we have been told that we should not expect to be able to offer fully available corporate worship until at least the end of this year – a chastening prospect for those of us who value coming together to worship regularly.
Yes, we have started a wide variety of online worship and other ‘gathering’ events. And these have been warmly received by our faithful members. But we are not kidding ourselves that these can ‘replace’ the physical gathering.
And, besides, there are around one-third of our congregations who have no access to the Internet – so online worship simply isn’t available for those folks.
So, overall it is a challenging and sobering time for us in the churches here in Drighlington and Gildersome. We can’t know for sure when we will be able to offer any kind of worship in our churches, or what ‘form’ that might take. We can’t host funerals or weddings and there is no point in us planning christenings.
It’s a tough time.
And it doesn’t look like it is going away any time soon.
Recently in our online worship we looked at the church in the very earliest part of the Acts of Apostles. The church that came together after the Day of Pentecost had no building in which to meet. They had no tradition to draw upon. They had no ‘blueprint’ with which to work.
Basically, they started with a blank slate, and figured it out as they went along!
Although there is not an exact parallel here (the early church was not dealing with a global pandemic) there are definitely some similarities. Here we are, with all of our routines and certainties disrupted, having to re-shape our ways of being church!
And there is much to be positive about. People are taking the time to care for other people in all sorts of new ways. I would hazard a guess that there is more pastoral care taking place in our churches right now than there ever has been.
We are learning new ways to nurture our faith through private prayer, bible reading and worship.
And many of us are drawing richly upon online resources on YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and other platforms.
Our church buildings may be closed, but the church is very much alive!