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Covid restrictions fail to quench Church’s burst of Advent creativity

28 November 2020

Second Church Estates Commissioner says outdoor carol singing will be permitted post-lockdown

Dean and Chapter York Minster

The Advent wreath in York Minster

The Advent wreath in York Minster

VIRTUAL and outdoor carol services, and online seminars and Advent calendars, are just some of the creative ways in which churches and cathedrals across the UK are marking the season of Advent in pandemic times.

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that places of worship would be allowed to reopen when the lockdown ends this coming Wednesday. Social distancing means that church capacity will be limited, however, and the ban on congregational singing indoors due to the unknown risks of viral transmission remains in place.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, the Second Church Estates Commissioner Andrew Selous suggested that carol singing would be allowed outdoors from the middle of next week. This was confirmed in government guidance on the Christmas period, published on Sunday, which states that indoor singing by both amateur and professional choirs would be permitted from 2 December, and that congregations could sing carols outdoors, providing they were physically distanced.

Speaking in anticipation of the change, on Friday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Recovery Group, said: “I know that the news that we will be able to come together for public singing outdoors this Christmas will bring comfort and joy to many.

“Advent and Christmas this year will not be the same as previous years, but having outdoor congregational singing and indoor carol services with choirs is a reasonable balance, and recognises our duty to protect and care for each other.

“Following news that the official number of people who have died and are Covid-positive reached almost 700 a day this week, we are mindful of the terrible toll this virus is taking in this country; so I pray that our worship this Christmas will reflect the light and hope at the heart of the nativity story.”

In the light of the restriction that limits singing at indoor services to choirs and performers, many online carol concerts are being organised in which people can sing along at home. Some cathedrals, such as Truro, are offering multiple ticketed carol concerts by the choir to allow more people to attend in person (News, 20 November).

Lichfield Cathedral, for example, would usually expect more than 1000 people at its Advent Sunday carol service. Instead, the Dean and Chapter are hosting a service online, and inviting people to light candles at home.

Lichfield CathedralA Christmas tree outside of Lichfield Cathedral

There will also be a selection of socially distanced outdoor services, including the annual Lantern Service on 13 December and two “Carols Around the Tree” services on 19 December. For the first time, the Christmas Eve Crib Service will be held outside. Families are invited to attend dressed as a nativity character.

The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, said: “The whole cathedral team is determined to try and host a range of services that capture the special quality of this most popular of seasons.”

The national Church of England service for the first Sunday in Advent this weekend will be broadcast from St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square. It is to be the first in a series of pre-recorded “worship at home” services throughout Advent, part of the Church’s Christmas campaign, Comfort and Joy (News, 9 October).

Other services planned include midnight mass led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin; and a New Year’s Eve online service led by the Archbishop of York, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell.

Recordings of the services will also be available on the free 24-hour phone line Daily Hope, which has been offering services, prayers, and reflections since the start of the first lockdown (News, 1 May).

Archbishop Cottrell said on Thursday: “We hope that these services, with a theme of Comfort and Joy, will help bring joy and celebration after a uniquely difficult year. We also acknowledge that for those who have lost a loved one or livelihood, or who cannot be with someone they love, our role may be to provide consolation and hope.”

A four-metre wide Advent wreath was suspended above the central tower at York Minster on Friday as a “sign of hope” as the cathedral prepares to mark the start of Advent this Sunday.

The wreath, which has been made by the cathedral’s volunteer flower arrangers using ivy and holly mainly from the Minster’s gardens, holds five one-metre tall Advent candles, the first of which will be lit at a service broadcast from the Minster on Sunday.

For the next four weeks, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey are hosting a series of free online seminars focusing on pictures of the Virgin and Child from the National Gallery collection. Each session, held on Monday lunchtimes, will be led by an art historian and a theologian “to inspire hope and reflection on the coming of Christ”. The first seminar, next week, will focus on the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi, and will be led by Dr Beth Williamson, Professor of Medieval Culture, University of Bristol, and the Dean of Westminster, Dr David Hoyle. The events are free, but advance booking is required. (The booking period for the first seminar is closed.)

In the diocese of Europe, the Director of Lay Discipleship, Dr Clare Amos, is also recording Advent reflections, as well as writing weekly on the lectionary from a European perspective, in her blog, “Exploring Faith in Europe”.

The Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral have partnered with high-street businesses to create a Christmas Trail. Participants can use their smartphones to scan a QR code in shop windows to connect to a web-based journey through the Nativity story in words and music. The walk, which can be undertaken anytime, will finish at the cathedral, where, during opening hours it will be possible to visit the Crib, light candles, and offer. Social distancing measures will be in place and masks must be worn in the building.

The Canon Chancellor, the Revd Dr Gordon Giles, said: “‘With the Dickens Festival cancelled this year because of the coronavirus, we saw opportunity to take the message of Christmas to the streets alongside services continuing in the Cathedral. Christmas is not cancelled. Advent is a time of hope as well as anxious waiting, and we are experiencing that.”

Durham CathedralDurham Cathedral’s mining nativity scene

In Durham Cathedral, the Christmas lights on its 25ft Norwegian Spruce will be turned on by a doctor and a nurse from University Hospital of North Durham, Tara Watkiss and Dawn Kempson, during an online service on 13 December.

The Vice-Dean and Precentor, Canon Michael Hampel, said: “The lighting of the tree and blessing of the Crib is a pivotal moment in our Christmas celebration as we bring together the sacred and the secular. . . This year it felt right to honour the true heroes of 2020 who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to protect us all.”

The Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral has put together a musical Advent calendar: a series of 24 performances by the cathedral choir, professionally filmed to be released on its website for each day of advent. Other carol services have already been filmed for the website and social media.

Another online Advent calendar has been organised for youth groups and schools in diocese of Manchester: from Monday until Christmas Eve a new video of Advent reflections and activities will be released. The diocesan youth officer, Susie Mapledoram, said: “The Ultimate Online Advent Calendar is a joint project with our friends in Chester and Sheffield dioceses and is designed to use in, as well as share across our social media platforms each day through to the last instalment on 24 December.”

The diocese of Guildford has also released an online calendar of pictures, questions, videos, and Bible quotes, as well as printable Advent resources for schools and churches. In Wales, which finished a month-long lockdown earlier this month, places of worship have reopened, and Welsh cathedrals and greater churches will be floodlit on Advent Sunday.

All this is in addition to Advent Online, the collection of resources launched in the middle of November (News, 19 November).

Exeter CathedralThe Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral has put together a musical Advent calendar: a series of 24 performances by the cathedral choir

Northern Ireland entered a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown at midnight on Thursday. Places of worship can remain open for private prayer. In Ireland, under level three of the government’s Living with Covid-19 strategy, places of worship are also only open for private prayer, but restrictions may be eased for up to two weeks over Christmas.

The Bishop of the united dioceses of Cashel, Ferns, and Ossory in the Church of Ireland, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, told his diocesan Synod on Saturday that Advent was “all about crisis” and that “in the midst of crisis we know what our faith is worth”.

The Church was “over-dependent” on church buildings, he said. “It’s a kind of love-hate relationship we have with them. We keep saying we all know we have far too many, that they drag us down, that they cost too much but we love them all and we wouldn’t want to be rid of any of them and so we are forever caught in the buildings preoccupation and dilemma. The pandemic has, however, whether we like it or not, given us a trial run and an instructive experience in how we, as it were, do without the great buildings.”

Bishop Burrows said that the pandemic had also knocked some of the commercialism out of Advent. “Advent is normally a big demonstration that we all live in the fickle power of the market but this particular year we’ve a new sense of the last things. Certainly, we hope that a vaccine is coming, that better times are ahead but never as of late have we been so re-reminded of the frailty of human nature. . . It is no harm occasionally to know anew that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and that, in the midst of life we are in death.”

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