Here is a question: How can you be a church if you can’t meet? Being in a service of worship on Sunday is only part of what Christians mean by ‘church’ – but it’s an important part. How welcome then, was the announcement from the Northern Ireland Executive that churches could begin to meet again this week.
Much has changed since Sunday, 15 March, since we were last able to go to church. Lockdown has placed significant pressure on all of us, so its gradual relaxation in meeting our physical and practical needs is to be welcomed. As are the reopening of churches, since our spiritual and pastoral needs remain.
Ministers, pastors and priests have been busy working to meet these needs, making a difference to many people during this time. Now they can begin to turn their attention to meeting again. In my own tradition, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland issued a comprehensive set of guidelines for ministers, with advice on everything from designing one-way systems in corridors, to the cleansing of equipment and rooms, which might be used.
The practical detail of how to administer the sacrament of baptism to an infant while remaining at a distance, or how to distribute bread and wine safely during communion, are matters needing an inventive mind. This is church, but not as we remember it.
So here are four thoughts to help church goers who may be making their way back to places of worship in coming weeks.
Firstly, we must stay safe. The virus remains, and the best advice is that it will remain for a long time to come. Your local church leaders will have made arrangements to ensure the safety of everyone. This might mean that a church member will find their usual place is not available to them, or that some of the much-loved patterns of worship may be missing. To be safe, we will need to set aside some things we love to do, and be ready to embrace some changes. Be patient if you find yourself asked to do things differently. Safety first.
Secondly, we need to be wise. While the NI Executive has permitted worship to happen from this week, and some congregations may be intending to go back immediately, many are not and shouldn’t be pressurised into doing so. Some have told me they don’t think they can return until August or September – and that should be fine with us.The practical arrangements for cleansing and re-organising the flow of people through a building, and possibly limiting numbers at services, will all require signage, some equipment, and possibly training for stewards and others. Wisdom requires patience.
Thirdly, we have made a difference. There are thousands of powerful examples of compassionate caring in the community, which people have continued to do through lockdown. Most of these stories will never be told, but they include organising phone calls to elderly folk who have been shielding, and may feel isolated and lonely, or food distribution to families who can’t travel to a supermarket.
Some churches have released funds to purchase computer equipment for children to home study, while others have used Zoom to continue their prayer meetings and Bible studies, or organised virtual social events for teens.
Chaplains in our hospitals have had a special ministry among families facing bereavement without the ‘normal’ means of support, which comes at such times of loss – and they also have been available to hard-pressed staff teams, who have been working so hard.
Throughout the community, there has been an army of unsung heroes getting on with the job – and we are so very grateful to them. Saying ‘well done’ to them may seem inadequate, but it’s a good place to start.
Fourthly, we plan to emerge stronger. During lockdown, many churches have found new and imaginative ways to gather online for worship – and surveys show that many more people have been engaging with church digitally than might have attended a service in person in the past.
Many people have been asking big questions about life, death and their own place in the world. The relative anonymity of online services has meant they can ‘listen in’ to a service without showing up in person. This is a cherished space, which needs to be preserved and encouraged. These months of lockdown mustn’t be wasted.
We have longed for and prayed for this return, yet the worst impact of this pandemic remains to be felt in many parts of the world. In our country, we have seen the best of hi-tech western medicine struggle to contain this virus. Imagine then, how things are for half the world’s population who do not have access to a properly functioning healthcare system – or for the three billion people who do not have soap and running water in their homes.
Our joy to be back together in God’s house is seasoned with deep concern that all is not well elsewhere. Our responsibility as global citizens to act in support of people facing the calamity of COVID-19 among the poor, is a serious and present call of God to all of us. We must not forget them.
Photos: (1) The Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce (2) the interior of Cregagh Presbyterian Church, east Belfast (credit Murray Dalzell)