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How Covid changed one vicar

by
01 March 2024

Four years after the first lockdown, Tim Sumpter looks back

Alamy

BY MARCH 2020, I had been connected with the parish of Ockbrook with Borrowash for 26 years: first as a curate, and then as the Vicar. Over that time, the church family had grown to become one of the largest in the diocese of Derby. I assumed that I knew my community well.

Then came the first Covid-19 lockdown. Like so many of the clergy, I felt utterly bereft. The church buildings closed; members of the church community were shut off behind their own front doors. As someone who now recognises that his identity was thoroughly entwined with his priestly ministry, I began contemplating the future in sometimes dark and distressing ways.

Someone suggested that we should try to live-stream a church service. Initially, the idea sounded both crazy and well beyond our capabilities. Thankfully, we have a few tech-savvy members, and so it was that I became one of the first vicars in the C of E to do this. The first live-streamed service went out from the vicarage kitchen table on Mothering Sunday 2020, filmed by a crew from BBC East Midlands, who quoted me saying: “I’ve changed the sacred space for the ordinary place, and the communion table for the kitchen table, and as a result many more people are reached and gaining comfort in this most difficult of times.”

BBCLive-streaming on Mothering Sunday 2020: the first Sunday of the first Covid-19 lockdown and the author’s first live stream

Praying the Lord’s Prayer, I became unexpectedly and visibly emotional, which, in a later interview on the BBC, I suggested was perhaps because “I was reflecting the emotions that so many feel at the moment and don’t know how to process.”

These online services ran for more than a year, reaching thousands of people, all over the world, some of whom contacted me to express gratitude for the comfort that they received.

At about this time, after a post on the local community Facebook page offering to help any elderly and vulnerable members in the community, I was inundated with offers of support. From that tiny seed, I found myself co-ordinating 50 local volunteers — most with little or no church connection — who were shopping, collecting medication, gardening, and offering basic food parcels. One of our church buildings was opened as a hub for food and loo-roll storage. And we were contacted by relatives from all over the country requesting help for their loved ones who lived locally.

Once the schools returned, I received a call from a local head teacher asking whether I could help about a student who had not eaten for a number of days. From that initial conversation, the community foodbank was formed — which, again, I found myself co-ordinating with a small and dedicated team. To this day, the foodbank continues to help families who are struggling to make ends meet, and has been generously supported by many individuals, groups, and businesses.

Although I am sad that so many people died, and others had their lives turned upside down, for me the legacy of Covid has been invaluable. Had I left the parish before then, I would, I am ashamed to say, have been utterly unaware of many of the real material and social needs all around me, but hidden from me because of my focus on the church community.

Covid really has changed me as a person and the ministry that is my vocation. The focus is now on softening the church walls and engaging in missional acts of compassion, believing that people won’t care much about what we know until they know how much we care.

 

IN SEPTEMBER 2021, All Saints’, Ockbrook (a Grade II listed building), was closed for refurbishment. We had for many years been raising money to adapt the worship space to give us more flexibility. The legacy of Covid-19 had a definite impact on that vision. We now also wanted a space that could be used for, and by, the community.

The congregation and wider community raised the £400,000 needed (through gift days, an auction of promises, and regular giving), which was a remarkable feat. In May 2021, the building reopened, and is indeed becoming something of a community hub.

BBCLive-streaming on Mothering Sunday 2020: the first Sunday of the first Covid-19 lockdown and the author’s first live-stream

So far, it has been used for hustings for local elections; as a warm space; for a weekly dementia café; and for two thriving pre-school toddler groups. Over Christmastide 2023, we noticed that many people who come to these groups also came — many for the first time — to some of our special Christmas events. We had a total of 1048 visitors, which, from a community of about 7000, is humbling and encouraging.

Alongside this, the churches have also given sacrificially to fund a full-time children’s and youth worker, who has a dual brief: to work with, and co-ordinate, the church-family children and youth groups and volunteer leaders, and also to be an active presence in the community. She has forged important and substantive links with all the schools in the neighbourhood, and has been seeing students who are struggling with the mental-health impacts of Covid.

 

AS I reflect on living through the Covid-19 pandemic, and the legacy that it continues to proffer me, I recognise it as one of those life experiences that come unbidden and unexpected, and for which one could never really have been prepared. At first, I felt totally de-skilled and useless. I led many funerals for people I knew. Both my wife and I were poorly with the virus, and I have been left with some of the symptoms associated with long Covid. But also, as it forced me to take the values of my faith in Jesus out into the community and work in partnership with caring people, Covid has been responsible for turning my world upside down and inside out, in a life-affirming and deeply enriching way.

On a quiet day that I led in a local convent, just before the first lockdown, two Bible verses seemed to jump off the page at me: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28.20); and “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12. 9). These proved lamps to my path as I traversed some dark contours.

 

IN THE summer of 2024, I hope to complete the three-year M.Sc. in integrative counselling and psychotherapy from the University of Derby. Over the past four years, I have signposted many who have been struggling with mental-health issues to talking-therapists. I have also personally benefited hugely from the skills and insights of various therapists.

As a counsellor and psychotherapist, I very much hope to be able to offer specialised help to many whose mental health has been adversely affected by Covid-19, especially clergy and church leaders, who are now often living with an institutional expectation that it should be “business as usual”.

 
The Revd Tim Sumpter is Vicar of Ockbrook with Borrowash, in the diocese of Derby.

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