A post-Covid Church25 October 2020
What will it be like? Understandably, many people accosted in the street by TV interviewers express the frustrations of having to abide by various restrictions in order to safeguard themselves and others. The oft-repeated refrain seems to be on the lines of "when things are back to normal", with a shrug of the shoulders expressing the fear that it will be a long time coming.
The most obvious restriction of recent months has been the closing of church buildings for public worship. We pass church buildings whose doors are shut. The Church is closed. Closed to worship. Closed to that sense of holy history. Closed to anyone who really wants to go inside a holy place. Things are slowly changing - you can now go to church but you must sit away from other folk.
But out for the day, we found another Anglican church, in a town centre. Open for hot food six days a week for those who need it. Open for prayer or just for sitting in. A volunteer offered a gentle welcome.
Maybe we got used to not being in a church building on Sundays. It's a strange experience, not seeing friends, not having that routine around which to build our Sunday. It's a strange experience not having to spend time during the week preparing worship and thinking about the sermon - really the first time, apart from holidays, since my ordination in 1968.
Will the churches be filled again? Actually, when were churches 'filled' anyway? Over the years we've got used to diminishing numbers. It's just the way things are. There's no magic solution, despite all the programmes and initiatives that come out of our denominational offices. And there's actually a very simple reason for this: most people are not interested in the "product". There's an unformed belief in many people that there must be a god somewhere in the vastness of the universe, a god who in some way or other affects life on earth and maybe beyond, but the Church has too often made this inaccessible. "Spiritual but not religious" is the way many people now describe this.
In 1968 Bishop John V Taylor, then Director (by whatever title) of the (then) Church Missionary Society wrote a series of newsletters entitled "Breaking down the parish". In them he was suggesting that the parish church - and doubtless he would have included other denominations as well, had CMS not been an Anglican society - should not be seen as the single focus for congregational growth, but that the church building might be seen primarily as the focus for worship. Evangelism, nurture, learning, welcome, care and every other aspect of church life should take place around the parish in house groups. The church building should be the primary focus for worship, when all the groups come together for worship together, and ideally stay for lunch.
It is likely that churchgoing will suffer in post-Covid times, as many whose adherence to the Church is a slender thing may simply have lost the habit. It is also likely that many smaller churches will have found it difficult if not impossible to survive without regular income but with regular bills. So how will the local church respond to these changing life patterns? Will the "product" change from what was previously regarded as "normal"? Will a successful return to "normality" be judged by counting the numbers who turn up to services? Or will we take a long hard look at our "product" and begin to think of doing things differently? In the future, will the local church see its primary role in terms of offering a lead in discovering how the new post-Covid community can be re-built, re-formed, re-energised? Will our communities begin to see the local church as a resource for caring and compassion? Will our worship take on a new and more engaged awareness of the needs around us? Will church members see themselves living out their belief in the divine love that binds us all together?
This is the time to reconsider our past and plan for our future. Kierkegaard once said that "life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards."
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