England is now in national lockdown. While there are difficult constraints on our social lives, schooling and work, places of worship can remain open, and people are allowed to leave home to attend.
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? Is OCC right to continue with onsite services, 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. In a joint letter they explained 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. We agree with that.
Evangelical Alliance comment: "This [freedom to remain open] 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."
Whether or not to stay 'open' is a tricky judgement call that every denomination and many local churches are making right now. The Twittersphere is abuzz with discussion (for example, @_JohnStevens, FIEC Lawyer-Pastor who represents free churches on a Government Covid working group). We need to show grace to those who make different decisions and not let the issue divide us.
Our experience of the pandemic, and the impact on our mental health, will vary enormously. The UK's leading mental health charity has been maintaining a long-term study of mental health in the nation. As they put it, "we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat."
For example, they report "18-24 year olds were still more likely than any other age group to report hopelessness, loneliness, not coping well and suicidal thoughts/feelings. They have been especially badly hit during the pandemic with a triple whammy of curtailed education, diminished job prospects and reduced social contact with peers."
Why does it matter we gather in person?
Some will ask, why don't we just meet online? Why take any risk in continuing to meet in person? Shouldn't we stand in solidarity with our city and nation?
While many are weary of video calls, they are also a real blessing! Some types of gatherings can work very well by Zoom, and for those shielding/isolating, video technology has been a lifeline.
I (Andy) have found a fresh appreciation of technology from a recent visit to my recently bereaved mum with whom we are in a support bubble. Her Baptist church is small. Most are shielding. They are unable to interact as a group, as many of them have neither the technology nor 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 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. In normal times, if I chose to remain physically absent and only interacted with family and friends via video link, you'd rightly ask me what was going on! Instinctively, we know the benefits of meeting face-to-face 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'. For example, Ed Stetzer, an American church leader and theologian, explores 4 reasons why physical gatherings matter. Here are a couple of quotes from his excellent article:
- “Gathering is part of 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.”
We are also keenly aware of the strain on health professionals, carers, and other key workers. This makes it even more important that when we meet, we pay close attention to Covid-secure measures including wearing masks, restricting household interaction, and refraining from singing.
Our plans as OCC
In summary, we believe there are significant benefits of gathering: for mental/spiritual well-being, community cohesion, sustaining our public service and to maintain hope. Recognising this, the government is allowing churches to continue to meet, seeing that the benefits (for most people) outweigh the risks.
We have followed government guidance and legal requirements closely and have taken the decision that since we are able to meet safely in our building, we will continue to meet onsite in Tier 5.
To serve those shielding or self-isolating, or simply uncomfortable with attending in-person, we will of course continue to stream services via our website. If you are uncomfortable or vulnerable, please do continue to attend online!
Communities (small groups) will continue to meet online, and are a significant point of connection and support.
When we meet, you should also expect heightened levels of attention to our Covid-secure arrangements.
Regarding children and youth meeting during our worship services, having taken advice from Evangelical Alliance, we are minded to continue, but are awaiting the publication of the updated guidelines before making a final decision. We will write to parents before Sunday, and are consulting volunteers to see who is comfortable to be onsite.
Church, however we meet, let's keep encouraging each other! 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