CONGREGATIONS forced out of their churches by the coronavirus have been taking advantage of warm summer days to worship outdoors. For some, the experiment could become permanent, even after the weather turns autumnal.
Gatherings for services have ranged from small groups assembled in the corner of a field to scores of cars in a supermarket car park for a socially distanced drive-in.
“The Church is finding new ways to worship,” the Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Ealing, the Revd Justin Dodd, said. He is holding a regular Tuesday-lunchtime mass on the grass in front of his church, to which the response has been “fantastic”.
“Given current circumstances, an outdoor service means risks are somewhat more manageable,” he said.
There are still some restrictions, including social distancing, no singing, and holy communion is administered in one kind only. Chairs are provided, but people are advised to bring an umbrella — for shade as well as protection from the rain.
“There was something very powerful about us gathering in nature: the sense of constancy and renewal that is happening in the natural world with all the upheaval that was going on around us with the pandemic. People who participated said it felt very grounding and peaceful. We will review it at the end of this month, as we go into the autumn, but, given the reaction we have had, it is something I would do again next year.
“The most exciting thing is that It has opened up a new way of connecting with people.”
At St Mary’s, Ash Vale, near Guildford, the Vicar, the Revd Neil Lambert, has used the car park for drive-in morning services and evensongs since March. Easter alleluias were signalled by drivers’ turning on windscreen wipers, and the peace was exchanged by sounding the cars’ horns. “That was a bit noisy,” he said. “At the end, we gave everyone a blessing by hosing the cars down with water. It was quite dramatic, and the kids loved it.”
The service is delivered on Zoom with the congregation on laptops, tablets, and phones. “We won’t let go of the opportunities that Zoom give us,” Mr Lambert said. “Zoom church is very interactive. We have the local nursing home Zooming in. We’ve never had that before. So we’re reaching people in places we’ve never been. It’s been tremendous.
Sam ClarkeWorshippers pull in to a supermarket car park, for a service held by St Michael’s, Stoke Gifford, north of Bristol
“The pandemic has given us the permission to be creative and radical, and I don’t think we should let go of that. We have to be deeply rooted in our traditions, but it’s an opportunity to step out. I think people are ready to receive, and I’m excited.”
The parish of St Michael’s, Stoke Gifford, at the north of Bristol went further, taking over the car park of the local Sainsbury’s after it closed one Sunday last month. A giant screen was put up to live-stream the event on Facebook. More than 100 cars arrived for the service, conducted by the associate vicar, the Revd Tom Benyon. He said: “Like so many churches across the country, we’ve been producing stacks of online services over lockdown, but we’ve really missed meeting and worshipping together as a church family. It was a really vibrant, joyful event — full of laughter and hope.”
The parish’s director of operations, Ian Taylor, said: “Each car had two metres between them and people kept their windows closed, so they could sing to their heart’s content. They took selfies and emailed them to church staff who put them up on screen. The biggest thing was that people felt they were able to meet together, worship together, and see each other.
“There is now a plan to do a Christmas event, but we don’t want 100 cars with the engines running to keep warm; so we might suggest people turn up with hot water bottles.”
Other congregations that took advantage of July’s good weather to hold open-air services include those of St Thomas à Becket, Warblington, in Hampshire, and Thorpe St Andrew Episcopi, in Norfolk.
In the Somerset village of Thurloxton, Lorna Hasell, a lay worship assistant at St Giles’s is keen to promote outdoor worship. “I have had the idea in me ever since I was a child. I was country girl and able to wander often in solitude over fields and woodland, and was very certain that God was there revealing himself through the beauty. It seemed like a window between heaven and earth. That stayed with me all my life.”
Last October, she organised an outdoor service in a field on her farm. “We are sheep farmers and had a fairly informal order of service themed round that: readings from John 10, an interview with a shepherd, and some activities making little sheep. We got people to collect things from the field and laid them before a rustic cross. I was really surprised how older people who would normally go inside church really loved doing that.” Her order of service can be found on the Church of England’s website.
She is now planning an outdoor harvest festival at St Giles’s on 6 September.
Residents of three housing estates in Scunthorpe are being encouraged to join “Mossy Church”, a project run by the Church Army, which encourages people in deprived areas to explore the outdoors. “The emphasis is on conservation,” one of the organisers, Captain Sean Andrews, said. On Saturday, they met in the grounds of the Church of he Holy Spirit, on the Riddings Estate. “We have a very simple liturgy, as most of the people we work with don’t come from any church background. We keep it as simple as possible: we are just there to have fun and enjoy God’s creation.
“Our role is to build up new communities, not necessarily in a church building. It has been very well received. When people come, they have other issues [for] which we can offer practical help or support. We work with families who do struggle. We try to find something that parents and kids would enjoy, and one of the things that bring people together is nature.”
Church House has issued guidance for congregations keen to use outdoor space for church activities (Faith, 24 July). It says: “Government guidance is clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones. This can be an opportunity to notice and be thankful for God’s creation; noticing the trees, plants, birds, and insects around you, and feeling the sunshine and wind (or refreshing rain!) on your face.
“Churchyards are also often full of fascinating monuments which tell the story of your community over the centuries. Sometimes they contain imagery and poetry and express joy and faith, as well as sadness, even perhaps unease, for example monuments of people related to the Slave Trade.
“These can offer opportunities for reflections on life, remind people of their shared past, and encourage discussion about our place in the world, and how we might prayerfully work towards creating a better one.”
The advice includes: leave the space as you found it; keep numbers manageable; maintain physical distancing; don’t make it like “normal” church; allow the place and itself and the Holy Spirit to lead you; and don’t be surprised if the wildlife start to observe you. “Birds especially are known to take an interest in spiritual matters outside. No one knows why it is but many have commented on it.”