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Christmas services held despite surge in Covid cases

31 December 2021

Few cancellations as congregations and clergy adapt

PARISH OF JARROW AND SIMONSIDE

Carols outdoors in the car park of St Peter’s, Jarrow, in South Tyneside, on 12 December, for the second year in a row

Carols outdoors in the car park of St Peter’s, Jarrow, in South Tyneside, on 12 December, for the second year in a row

CHRISTMAS services in England went ahead in person, despite the surge in cases of the Omicron variant: clergy and congregations adapted to move some of the largest services outside in badly hit areas to ensure that they could go ahead.

Few services were cancelled; some churches reported lower attendance in person, but higher online, where that was offered. Some churches even doubled up each service to ensure smaller numbers and better social distancing. Others offered ticketing for services to control attendance.

Meeting in person this year, despite the rise in cases after the new variant appeared earlier in December, was welcomed by worshippers, after the severe restrictions of Christmas 2020.

The Revd David Mulrenan, a non-stipendiary minister at St Lawrence’s, Brundish, in Suffolk, said that they “ploughed ahead” with a planned lessons and carol service on Christmas Eve. “I think our villagers would have been very disappointed had we not. For one thing, they would have missed the comedy of our Rector’s academic hood catching alight from the Advent candle stand, and Joseph being decapitated before reaching the nativity scene.

“Sometimes our village out-Dibleys Dibley. But the drama adds to the atmosphere of a rural carol service, and everyone sang their hearts out and went home very happy,” he said.

The Revd Carole Marsden, of Shrewsbury United Reformed Church, said: “All ours went ahead. All precautions adhered to, and a good celebration had by all. All live-streamed, too. Our reader on Christmas Day ready by phone from Wales, and we even added in a rickshaw carol event, where brass players were pedalled on rickshaws to different churches where we sang outdoors.”

In St John’s, Meads, Eastbourne — the civil parish with the oldest average age in the country — services went ahead as usual, with a Christingle and midnight service on Christmas Eve, and planned services on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, Catherine Butcher, a Reader, said.

Dunstable Priory Church, in St Albans diocese, had held an outdoor Christmas service in July for those who missed last year’s (News, 30 July). The Team Rector of Dunstable, the Revd Rachel Phillips, said: “By mid-December, we were starting to think we would have the last laugh if everything were to be cancelled. Thankfully, it wasn’t, but we still believe that Christmas is not just for Christmas and are expecting to celebrate Christmas again in June 2022.”

Portsmouth Cathedral held four in-person carol services, two crib services, a midnight mass, and three services each on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day, the organist, David Stevenson-Price, said. “We must have seen at least 3000 through our doors in the five days leading up to Christmas Day. And a full choir sang!”

ST MARY THE VIRGIN, RINGMERA snow machine in operation during the Christmas Day service in St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer

In Ringmer, in Chichester diocese, a lay minister, Marisa Hayes, said that all services continued in person, with 55 at a Christmas Eve crib service, including 32 children. Eighty people attended a Christmas Day eucharist led by the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Will Hazlewood  — a far larger congregation than normal.

“So many different faces in every congregation — such a wonderful gift for us to be able to introduce the fellowship of St Mary’s to new folk,” Ms Hayes said.

In Upper Teesdale, in the diocese of Durham, the Revd Alison Wallbank said, a carol service was held with an attendance of 50 people from a village of 120, where usual church attendance is just eight. “Says it all!” she said.

Many churches adapted their plans and took some indoor services outside, particularly when large attendance was expected. In Telford, where cases of Covid were high, the Rural Dean, the Revd Deborah Loughran, said that they moved carol services outdoors, and a Christingle service became a “muddy Christingle” instead. Outdoor services attracted higher numbers than previous years, and the church now plans to keep the outdoor format in future.

In Stisted, near Braintree, in Essex, the biggest Christmas Eve service went outside, Tayrina Ferguson, a churchwarden, said. “We decked everything we could in fairy lights, gave out glow sticks and mulled wine. It was really well attended: 200-plus, which is huge in my small, semi-rural village — and lots of requests to keep it outside next year.”

Midnight mass was held outside at St Mary’s, Turville, in Buckinghamshire.

In Alham Vale Benefice, in Somerset, two Christmas Day services were cancelled, but four others were held. The Vicar, the Revd Helen Drever, said: “We warned people to wrap up warm, and kept doors open, masks on, and plenty of space. Moved crib services outside. It did rain, but we asked people to dress for the weather in advance and put up a large well-ventilated events shelter. We are pretty rural here, and hardy.”

Some clergy had Covid, and were obliged to self-isolate over Christmas. The Vicar of North Harrow, the Revd Sarah Archer, said: “We had a splendid carol service on the 19th at which I and the retired PTO, who was to cover Boxing Day and midweek mass, and the organist for Boxing Day, got Covid — plus four others, including our sacristan.”

The Area Dean for Orpington, in Rochester diocese, the Revd John Musson, said that several people could not attend at the last minute, because they had tested positive before services. “Locally, at least one church had to cancel a service at the last minute due to clergy testing positive,” he said.

In north Croydon, which reported a high number of Covid cases, the Vicar of St Luke’s, Woodside, the Revd Sam Dennis, said that they had to cancel the carols in the pub and holiday club, although other services went ahead. Owing to self-isolation, however, he had to find new readers, sidespeople, musicians, and servers.

Heather AstonA Christmas Eve crib service is held on the beach at Crackington Haven, in Cornwall. Seventy-five people attended

In the Sid Valley Mission Community, in Exeter diocese, the Revd Laura Selman and her husband, the Revd Matt Selman, both came down with Covid on Christmas Eve, but colleagues stepped in to allow the eight planned services on Christmas Day and Boxing Day to be held.

Other services had to be scaled down. In Fulford, in the diocese of York, the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Suzanne Sheriff, said: “Nursing homes were so moving. I had to go in on my own instead of with the choir, but residents and staff did the readings. A resident with advanced dementia did a beautiful rendition of ‘Away in a manger’, and then thanked me for bringing back memories of her childhood.”

In Wales, where tighter Covid restrictions came into force on Boxing Day, some churches cancelled bigger services over Christmas.

The Team Vicar of Barry, the Revd Daniel Barnes-Davies, said: “Our masses went ahead as planned, with seats restored to two-metre spacing. We cancelled carol services. Effectively, we kept our ‘congregation’ services, and cancelled our missional ones.”

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

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