From Boxing Day 2020, Oxfordshire has been in 'Tier 4' of the England Covid regulations. Tier 4 (and all other tiers) allow places of worship to 're-open', and people are allowed to leave home to attend a place of worship.
What are we to make of this freedom to gather, while other aspects of life are severely constrained, and we are advised to 'stay at home' except for essential reasons? In other words, is OCC right to continue with in-person services, as we intend to do, or should we revert to online only?
Behind the scenes
Some of you will be interested in what has been going on behind the scenes, as Christian and other faith leaders have worked with government on these matters. Faith leaders from across a wide spectrum have lobbied government to allow places of worship to remain open. In a joint letter they have argued that public worship is Covid-19 secure, essential to sustain the public service of faith communities, necessary for social cohesion and connectedness, important for the mental health of our nation, and an essential sign of hope.
In commenting on the new rules, EA's Danny Webster writes: "This new approach [freedom to remain open in Tier 4] is an important recognition [by government] of the importance of churches gathering in person to worship, to the spiritual, mental and emotional welfare of their congregation, and as a witness of hope to society. The closure of places of worship in November was met with widespread frustration, not least following the extensive measures put in place to ensure they can operate safely."
Why does it matter than we gather in person?
Some might ask, why don't we just meet online? Why take any risk in continuing to meet in person?
Although many are weary of Zoom* (*other products are available!) it is also a real blessing! If a pandemic had happened even 5 years ago, our ability to interact meaningfully, for a prolonged period of months, would have been far more challenging. Some types of gatherings can of course work very well by Zoom, and for those shielding/isolating video technology has been a real lifeline.
I've found a fresh appreciation of technology from a recent visit to my recently bereaved mum with whom we are support-bubbling. Her Baptist church is small and mostly shielding, and so they are unable to interact as a group, as many of them have neither the technology or expertise to use it. Mum is isolated, and relying on a thin diet of Songs of Praise and occasional phone calls with Christian friends. I'm very grateful to be in a larger, city church with lots of musically and technically competent people! We have been sustained by a rich diet, enabled by technology, despite the constraints of lockdown.
And yet, something is missing. If I normal times I were to only interact with my family or my friendship group via video link, preferring to remain physically absent, you'd rightly ask me what was going on! Instinctively we know the benefits of meeting F2F (face-to-face, one of 2020's new acronyms!) with family and friends.
So too with church. The challenges of gathering in this pandemic have provoked many Christian leaders seeking to freshly articulate what we might call a 'theology of gathering'. Here is one example where the author, Ed Stetzer, an American church leader and theologian, explores 4 reasons why physical gatherings matter. I recommend you read it in full, but here are a few quotes from his excellent article:
- The ekklesia - the assembly of the King - is a mark of a biblical church and we should want it, long for it, and work toward it. It can’t be OK to stay away, even if we must for a season for the sake of our church community and our neighbors.
- There’s an element of worship and Christianity that cannot be experienced in private worship or by watching worship. There are some blessings that God gives only in the ‘meeting together’ with other believers.
- Christians don’t get from “watching” church what they do from “being” with the church. Gathering is part of what makes a church a church.
Our plans as OCC
For all the reasons above we plan to hold in-person services for those who wish to attend, as we believe there are significant benefits of meeting in-person. Our Covid-secure arrangements mean that we can do so as safely as possible, and government rules allow us to do so. (Of course, to serve those shielding or self-isolating, we will of course continue to stream services via our website and Communities (small groups) will continue to meet online.)
From the beginning of the pandemic, we have followed government guidance and legal requirements closely. The government is allowing churches to meet, seeing that the benefits are strong, (for most people) outweighing the risks.
In words of Paul, to the church in Rome: "I long to see you so that we may impart to each other some spiritual gift to make us strong - that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith." (Romans 1:11-12)
For more detail on our approach to Covid, please visit our page here: oxford.occ.org.uk/coronavirus