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Churches slowly ease Covid measures

29 July 2021

Online services still valued by vulnerable as masks come off

Alamy

A painted sign on the pavement at a pedestrian crossing in Brixton, south London, reminds those aged 18 and over that they are eligible for a coronavirus vaccination

A painted sign on the pavement at a pedestrian crossing in Brixton, south London, reminds those aged 18 and over that they are eligible for a co...

CHURCHES are emerging from Covid restrictions, although mask-wearing and a range of modifications of normal eucharistic practice are still to be found.

Continuing modifications of practice include administration in one kind only, as well as other practices not recommended by the Bishops, such as worshippers’ bringing their own cups for communion, and distribution in recyclable espresso cups.

Concerns about vulnerable churchgoers are prompting continued caution. An example of a church offering different levels of precautions at different services is St Leonard’s, Streatham, in south London, which is offering a 10 a.m. service to which people are asked to wear masks, but an 8 a.m. celebration as well as evensong at which masks do not have to be worn.

The Rector, the Revd Anna Norman-Walker, said that the mask-wearing policy at 10 a.m. would be reviewed once everyone over 18 had been given the opportunity to be double-vaccinated. One hundred people, including seven children, attended on Sunday for the first services since the relaxation of restrictions.

A former nurse, she said that she had great confidence in the NHS and vaccines, and shared that with her congregation. She took part in one of the early vaccine trials herself, and phoned every elderly member of her congregation to talk to them about getting vaccinated.

The decision about how to go forward had been taken with the PCC on the basis of “how we keep that balance between giving people a sense of hope and helping people to look forward again with confidence”.

In Bath, one congregation came together for the first time in 18 months last weekend, after being split alphabetically by surname into two groups, who worshipped fortnightly in the 1000-year-old St Mary’s, Charlcombe, which has space for just 30.

The Rector, the Revd Philip Hawthorn, said: “Several members wait on standby in case we get visitors who push the number over the limit, and will leave the service in order to accommodate them. This church has chosen to ask people to bring their own personal chalice for wine. It feels really homely to do this; I love the variety of small cups and glasses used, from bone-china coffee cups to a ‘Chelsea FC’ shot-glass — a woman of 80!”

“It’s for those of us who don’t feel ready for singing”

Singing has not been reinstated, and mask-wearing is still in place at St Mary’s, but, in Mr Hawthorn’s other church of St Stephen’s, which seats 500, singing was allowed, behind masks.

“From last Sunday, we have allowed the congregation to sing, gently with masks, with those happy in the front half of the church, and those who’d prefer not to sing in the back half,” he said. The congregation received the consecrated wine in paper espresso cups donated by a local café.

Both congregations had welcomed the cautious approach, he said, owing to their own age and vulnerability, because he himself suffered from long Covid for six months, and had only recently returned.

The Vicar of Holy Trinity, Bridgwater, and St Hugh’s, Durleigh, the Revd William Lane, has waited for this week’s PCC meetings to agree the relaxation of precautions. He believes that singing will be allowed, “very gently”, and masks will be encouraged. “Most people are wanting to move forward, but to do so gently, rather than open up at full pelt.”

Common to many churches is some congregation members’ feeling that they are not ready to return yet; and live-streamed or recorded services are being continued for those at home.

But disability-rights advocates in the Church said that many churches were not listening to the voices of those at high risk from Covid, who had now been excluded from society by the lifting of restrictions.

A blog by the researcher Dr Naomi Lawson Jacobs, a pioneer minister, Emma Major, and a disability adviser for the diocese of Oxford, the Revd Katie Tupling, said that the “institutional Church has abandoned many of us who are at higher risk from Covid, who will be too afraid to attend unsafe church buildings.

“When church leaders remove all Covid safety measures in their church buildings, these temporarily non-disabled leaders are saying to clinically vulnerable people, ‘We do not need you,’” their statement says.

Their blog attracted many comments from those who felt unsafe after the removal of restrictions on 19 July. One posted: “I used to attend church weekly — often more frequently — with my wife. No longer: churches no longer feel like safe places to me, living with both COPD and cancer and thus clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus. Thank God for the online Christian community!”

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