Have faith in our churches as they emerge from lockdown – Leslie Newton

Churches are beginning to reopen following the lockdown.Churches are beginning to reopen following the lockdown.
Churches are beginning to reopen following the lockdown.
THIS month heralded the opportunity for many businesses and venues to reopen – including places of worship. How wonderfully appealing that our churches could now throw open the doors and proclaim: “Everybody Welcome!”

However, this is still far from straight-forward. As with all public spaces a great deal of work is needed to ensure that everyone can be welcomed safely. Risk assessments and rigorous cleaning regimes are essential.

Places of worship, though, face other significant considerations. Many of our Methodist chapels, for example, are relatively small – think more ‘corner shop’ rather than ‘supermarket’. They rely on relatively few volunteer members, quite a number of whom are themselves vulnerable.

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Furthermore, a significant part of a church’s identity is that of being a people together: a ‘family’ who come together to worship God, to pray and learn together, to care for each other and to serve the world together. That word ‘together’ is important, especially when our church buildings have long been the established focus.

Places of worship can reopen - and even conduct weddings - following the lockdown.Places of worship can reopen - and even conduct weddings - following the lockdown.
Places of worship can reopen - and even conduct weddings - following the lockdown.

Such togetherness usually includes shaking hands, sometimes offering a hug, quiet pastoral conversations, Holy Communion and sharing food. All these relational activities carry in themselves a higher danger of Covid-19 transmission. Additionally, we have learned that singing carries a higher risk.

That is why many of our Methodist congregations are being cautious and patient about reopening. It will be achievable soon in some churches, but not for quite some time in many others.

However, whilst our buildings are precious – providing sacred space, meeting place, and community resource – they are most certainly only a part of a church’s life. For a church called to love God, each other and the world, our buildings can be wonderful servants; but they can sometimes become demanding masters if they begin to take up too much of our attention.

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These last months have provided a powerful reminder that the church really is the people not the building. Any thoughts that closed buildings have indicated that the church itself has been closed – or on furlough – are very wide of the mark! In fact, many churches have been rediscovering fresh impetus, energy and life.

All around Yorkshire we’ve seen churches embracing new ways to thrive. Worship gatherings on Zoom have become unexpectedly effective.

Services and sermons recorded on YouTube or in podcasts have had wide appeal. For instance, a Methodist minister in York has produced regular YouTube talks which have reached over 10,000 people spanning every continent!

Resources on DVD or in print or by ‘dial in’ have been widely appreciated by those not online. New groups have sprung up to study the Bible or discuss hard questions about the meaning of life and how faith is relevant.

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Toddler groups, holiday clubs and support networks have all found a new life online. Churches have been working with others in sustaining food banks, meal provision, debt counselling and mental health support.

Personal care and support has been deepening through phone calls, driveway visits, food and medicine deliveries. There has been a fresh appetite and enthusiasm for prayer. Several churches have been creating outdoor artwork and prayer spaces to remember those who have died during the pandemic.

And all the research tells us that engagement with churches and faith has increased significantly since the doors of our buildings were closed. A quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began, many of whom had never gone to a church building before.

All that said, we really do long to be able to physically meet together again soon. In the Old Testament story of creation, God looks at all he creates and declares ‘it is good’.

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The first thing God observes as ‘not good’ is that ‘the man is alone’. Far too many people are suffering the negative consequences of loneliness, despite all the online and offline activities. All of us need each other in order to be able to be healthy and for society to thrive.

However, we won’t simply go ‘back’ to our church buildings. We’ll enter as changed people, having learned much through lockdown about how we can better serve each other and our communities. But we will reopen our buildings with a fresh conviction that the church is really at its best when we’re out and about being salt and light – offering hope and generosity – to all the world.

The Rev Leslie M Newton is District Chair of the Yorkshire North and East Methodist District.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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