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Churches prepare for their first-ever serviceless Sunday

21 March 2020


Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral

CHURCHES are preparing to take part in whatever way they can in the National Day of Prayer and Action about the coronavirus outbreak tomorrow, Sunday 22 March, called by the presidents of the ecumenical grouping, Churches Together in England (News, 20 March).

The call, made last Monday, preceded the announcement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that all services would be suspended (News, 20 March). Many churches will be live-streaming their Sunday services, and others are inviting people to pray privately in their worship spaces, while observing social-distancing rules.

St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London has been streaming Morning Prayer this week, and will be streaming its Sunday eucharist at 10 a.m. The regular Sunday attendance is in the region of 300, 40 per cent of whom are tourists. The church has seen numbers for its online services rising already this week.

“We recorded 1800 people at one service,” the Revd Sally Hitchiner, Associate Vicar for Ministry, on said on Friday. “We have never known so many people wanting to access the services, so we think there is something really interesting going on.”

One hundred years ago, St Martin’s, the “church of the ever-open door”, was, famously, the first to broadcast a service on national radio, amid anxieties in the wake of the First World War. Its doors remain open daily for individual reflection, and its work with homeless people continues at the Connection on Adelaide Street.

Live streaming is going to be a new experience for many clergy, even those who are seasoned broadcasters. Canon Rachel Mann, Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester, expects that about 70 per cent of her congregation will connect with the Mothering Sunday service she will be streaming on YouTube on Sunday morning, followed by compline in the evening. Live streaming was, she said on Friday, a steep learning curve.

“I’m no ingénue when it comes to broadcasting, but it’s doing it under conditions when you can’t necessarily have someone there, and you’re using your own technology instead of the BBC’s.

“It’s disconcerting, not just being in an empty church but recognising that there’s an audience following along with you, praying along with you — but spread anywhere across the UK or the world. It’s profoundly connecting but also very disorientating. . .

“As someone who provides the eucharist and leads prayer regularly, I’m used to that sense of the relationship between congregation and minister and how that dynamic has a sense of uplift.”

Paper copies of some of the prayers to be used on Sunday have been sent to those who don’t use the internet, and she also plans in the coming days to send out a spiritual communion to enable congregants to connect with the eucharist at home. Meanwhile, her landline has never been so busy, and sending letters and postcards to her flock has surged.

The Revd Philip Wells, Vicar of Wantage, had already taken the decision last Sunday to set up mutual support groups, using prayer and phone calls, matching people up with a named contact. “We got everyone to opt into that, thinking we had a couple of weeks still to go,” he said on Friday. “But then the news came. We are trying to make sure that older members of the congregation who aren’t on social media and the internet can hopefully keep in contact.”

He will be live-streaming the eucharist on Sunday morning — “a new one for me”. But he was profoundly aware — in his daily-mass parish — of the impact on his congregation of not being able to go to church. “A number here have been faithful communicants all their lives, even into their 80s and 90s,” he said. “The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be for them.”

The church is encouraging spiritual communion, and will be providing a form of words for that: something, said Mr Wells, that had got lost over the decades. “They’ll be rediscovering something that was the tradition and is now timely and relevant,” he said.

Clergy have expressed concern about older people on several fronts. The Revd Angela Rayner, Assistant Curate of Kings Lynn Minster, reported from her conversations with parishioners and colleagues in Norfolk that many were not necessarily recognising the severity of the coronavirus or the need to self-isolate or keep their distance, on the grounds that they had “survived worse”. Sunday will see the Minster open for private prayer, with a warning about the need to maintain hygiene rules.

Two Catholic organisations, the Church Union and The Society, have produced a collection of prayers and liturgies for those unable to leave their homes. The collection includes a short form of spiritual communion, which includes the line: “Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart."

Cathedrals as well as churches will be eerily quiet on Sunday, though most remain open for private prayer, always with the understanding that those attending will observe social-distance instructions. Clergy are continuing the round of worship and prayer “on behalf of all” but with no public present at St Paul’s Cathedral, which closed in response to the Covid-19 prevention measures on Tuesday.

“As a community, we will keep praying for the needs of others, the city, and the world,” the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, said. “Together with people of faith and no faith, we will be encouraging different ways of coming together for our mental and spiritual health.”

Tom Daggett, head of music outreach at the cathedral, has invited schools to take part in a virtual hymn flashmob, video-recording their students singing a hymn as a musical gift for anyone feeling ill, lonely or isolated in their community. Several had already made a recording, including primary schools in London and Suffolk, before the school closures on Friday.

The recording can be done on a smartphone and does not have to be “filmed like a professional — it’s the sentiment we’re after,” Mr Daggett said. Videos, tagging St Paul’s Cathedral, could be posted to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. He urged these to be shared with parish churches for their own social-media channels.

Coventry Cathedral is another to report a growing take-up of its online services. It is live-streaming its morning prayer and communion at 9.15, and the Litany at 12 noon each day via its Facebook page, and will be doing the same on Sunday.

The Dean, the Very Revd John Witcombe, said on Friday: “This morning we had 1500 live views, and many more subsequently on the Facebook page. It has gone down very well.” The Cathedral and the Ruins remain open during the day for private prayer and reflection.

The Revd Alice Whalley, Vicar of St John’s N4, Brownswood Park, in north London, said on Friday that, when the Archbishops’ advice about closure came on Tuesday, setting up a foodbank in the church had seemed “the obvious thing to do”.

The church already runs a soup kitchen, and when the nearest food bank announced that it was having to close — due, in part, to the plundering of donation bins in supermarkets — the church stepped in.

The church freezer has been moved into the foyer. Those in need of food do not have to give a reason why they need it. “You might be an NHS worker, you might be struggling to feed your kids, you might be homeless. We’re saying: ‘Just come in, put on the gloves, do the hygiene, and take your food and go.’ No one is going to ask any questions.”

Calls to local networks brought in donations; a JustGiving page raised £650 almost immediately, and volunteers will be using the church as a base for community outreach work during the crisis.

“If we’re not for this, what are we for?” Ms Whalley said. “I’m hearing a lot of stuff about online worship, and I’m way behind with that all that — I feel a bit of a failure on that front. But these are our three key messages: We’re not shut. Nobody is to go hungry. Christ will rise on Easter Day.”

A prayer has been issued for use on the National Day of Prayer and Action:

Come, O Spirit of God,
and make within us your dwelling place and home.
May our darkness be dispelled by your light,
and our troubles calmed by your peace;
may all evil be redeemed by your love,
all pain transformed through the suffering of Christ,
and all dying glorified in his risen life.

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