CHURCHES in England are exercising caution over the return to public worship, permissible since last weekend for the first time since late March (News, 3 July).
It is thought that only a minority of churches reopened for worship on Sunday. In joint benefices, typically only one church was prepared to welcome a congregation, given the restrictions still in place, which include social distancing, the use of sanitising and cleaning, and the register of those attending. More plan to open in the coming weeks.
Exeter diocese was typical of most: some worshippers expressed delight to be back in church, while others decided to hold back until all precautionary measures could be met. About 80 per cent of churches in Devon say that they will be opening in the next few weeks, though almost all intend to continue streaming services online. Last Friday, the diocese’s four archdeacons discussed with the clergy the guidance about reopening.
At St Mary’s, Bickington, near Newton Abbot, some keen parishioners arrived 30 minutes early for a 9 a. m. communion service on Sunday. Inside, they found a new geography with hazard tape marking which pews could be used, red arrows on the floor to maintain social distancing, and bottles of hand-sanitiser at the door.
One worshipper, Michael Eveley, announced: “We were ready for this.” But he was disappointed that hymn-singing was banned for all but the organist, Hannah Findlay. She said afterwards: “I really enjoyed it. We’ve been doing online services, which are good, but I didn’t realise how much I missed being here until it happened.
“There’s a bit of nervous anxiety about all the new arrangements, but there’s been a great turnout: lots of people really keen to be back in the building.”
At St Luke’s, Buckfastleigh, a churchwarden, Lyn Thomas, noted people’s names as they entered, in case they needed to be contacted by the Government’s track-and-trace scheme. The congregation were shown to their seats as if they were in a cinema.
St Barnabas’s, SwanmoreWorshippers from St Barnabas’s, Swanmore, gather in their vehicles in the car park of Swanmore Village Hall on Sunday morning for a Songs of Praise-style service led by the Vicar, the Revd Claire Towns. It was the first drive-in service in Portsmouth diocese
Mrs Thomas said: “We did need to do a lot of preparation beforehand, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be — although some people wanted to sit in their ‘usual’ seats. It was lovely, absolutely wonderful, to be back in church.”
The Team Rector, the Revd Tom Benson, admitted that he was more nervous than he had been on the day when he did his first live online service. “It’s that mixture of the same and not the same,” he said. “It’s the excitement of seeing people, and the worry of keeping them safe. But I found it a joyful experience. There was a real prayerful sense of being together.”
He intends to continue his online services so that regular churchgoers who choose not to, or cannot, attend do not feel excluded. After the service, he and one of his assistant curates, the Revd Laura McAdam, joined a Zoom coffee morning, to comply with current guidance discouraging people from staying in church too long.
In Newton Abbot, the two churches in the Revd Nick Debney’s benefice, St Luke’s, Milber, and St John the Evangelist, Bovey Tracey, remained closed. He explained: “There is a real anxiety within the community about venturing out once more. A number of people are continuing to shield, and there are a number who have chosen to continue to self-isolate.”
He has written to all his congregation members to get their views, and to assure them that the churches will open only when the risk of infection has been minimised. “While we could have opened last weekend, I felt it important to give information, to give time, for members of the church community to get used to the idea of coming back to church, and to orientate them to what they might expect when they get there. The congregation are really excited about coming back to church and out of their exile — and I am really excited about being able to welcome them back.
“We will continue to stream services for the foreseeable future, for those who are unable to come to church; but we always need to be mindful that online services are not ‘instead of church’: they have to be ‘as well as church’, and seen as a very good and helpful tool in our toolbox of mission and evangelism.”
Elsewhere, Oxford diocese reported a similarly cautious approach. “It’s a changing picture, and we’re keen not to inadvertently add to the pressure some are feeling,” a spokesman said. “The key message from our bishops is not to rush.”
A Church House survey of cathedrals at the end of last week found that, of the 38 that responded, 13 — one third — were choosing not to open over the weekend. All but St Paul’s Cathedral intended to continue streaming services online.