AT A point in the year when it seemed as if Covid-19 could not make things any worse, two priests have been given a difficult pastoral challenge.
The Revd Ben Phillips, a Vicar on the borders of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and the Revd Richard England, Team Rector of a swath of Hampshire coastline, now find their patches divided between tier 2 and tier 4 in the latest pandemic restrictions. Somehow, they must negotiate their duties for the coming weeks across communities that have been severed.
For Mr Phillips, the divide is the River Thames. He has two churches in tier 2 — St Thomas of Canterbury, at Goring, and St Andrew’s, at South Stoke, on the Oxford side — and, in tier 4, St Mary’s, at Streatley, on the Berkshire bank.
“It is very, very stressful,” he said. “I live in tier 2, and it is OK, as I understand it, for me to travel between the tiers, and we can have public worship on both sides; but those who normally come to church across the river can’t do that.
“We have planned an open-air carol service in the rectory gardens on Christmas Eve to be our safest service of the season for the whole benefice, but no one from tier 4 can come. Those who felt they couldn’t come into a church building now can’t come to the open-air service we planned, which is very disappointing. I have tried to arrange a separate one for them, but I can’t arrange the stewards and musicians.”
He said that many of his parishioners were upset because they would not be allowed to meet family and friends over Christmas. “It would make life much easier if we were all in the same tier, but it would have to be a downward movement. Lots of people have families on both sides; so it presents them with problems. It’s jolly hard for them to make decisions as to what they will do in the coming days.”
Mr Phillips has difficulties in keeping a social distance, as he is hard of hearing. “I do usually put my ear a bit close to people, and I hate not being able to lip-read, but I keep a suitable distance and follow procedures. I have also been ‘tracked and traced’ after doing a funeral visit, and had to isolate. I am not so much worried about my own safety: it happens, it happens; but it’s being told I can’t do my job and then disappointing people.
“But we are doing lots of stuff online, and there is a community spirit. People are very understanding: they are trying to make the best of it rather than find ways round the regulations.”
For Mr England, the situation is particularly awkward. He is Vicar of Crofton, a parish in tier 2, near Fareham, but, earlier this year, he became interim Team Rector, establishing a new partnership with three churches: St Mary’s, St Matthew’s, and St Thomas’s, in neighbouring Gosport, which is now in tier 4.
“I thought I had seen everything the year could throw at us,” he said. “We were all tier 2, then on Thursday [17 December] Gosport went into tier 3, and, on Saturday [19 December], it went into tier 4; so suddenly we found ourselves having to make a whole load of decisions that were very different from any others we had made all year. It has been challenging.
“The bit of my job most adversely affected has been the establishment of the new parish. Normally, I’d be sitting down, meeting the congregation, getting to know them, building trust, beginning to talk about the future. . . But that’s virtually impossible. My curate, Jude Greenfield, who is leading the church-plant, has been doing a great job trying to get to know people, but it’s just super-difficult.
“The legalities have carried on as usual, but it is the bit alongside that, the getting to know people, that has been disrupted. We hope to plant the church in 2021, but that has been made much more difficult. We have had to make decisions across an interesting network of situations.”
Almost 100 of the congregation and staff at the Holy Rood, Crofton, including an administrator and the organist, come from areas now under tier 4. “We have taken the view that we have to behave as a tier-4 parish, as we are right next to one,” Mr England said.
“We have cancelled a couple of things we were going to do this week. We had hoped to have a big live nativity with animals, but have cancelled that; we can’t staff it, and I don’t want to exclude the families who would have wanted to come but can’t travel. Christmas Day will be solely online. We wondered about doing a hybrid thing, but won’t now.
“A lot comes down to ensuring that our churches are genuinely Covid-secure, and we are not just paying lip-service to it. We have a significantly older population; so caring for them has got to be done properly.”