5th July 2020
You have probably seen that Prime Minister Johnson said recently that places of Worship could reopen for worship from this weekend (July 4/5). So, why haven’t we reopened? I want to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on the question of reopening, and some of the challenges churches are facing around this issue.
I would like to begin by saying that I am pleased to say that we have not been inundated with requests or enquires about reopening for worship; I truly believe most people understand the complexities and would rather we returned safely than quickly. I am thankful for the emails and calls I have received from people encouraging caution and asking us to ensure all issues are considered before churches take the step of reopening for worship, recognising that this brings a whole set of challenges under the current restrictions. Here are just some of them:
Challenge 1 - There would be limited seating – for example Ponteland Methodist can accommodate a maximum of 22 people with 2 metre spacing and some chairs in ‘family groups', with 1 metre spacing it’s a maximum of 32. Ponteland is not alone; every church would have this issue. Questions that arise are: would people feel safe attending with only 1 metre spacing, or would they feel safer with 2 metre spacing? And what extra precautions would we need to put in place? Either way, how would your church accommodate everybody?
Challenge 2 - The answer to the first challenge may be to hold more services, but then, who does the cleaning that is required between services to minimise risk? And also, would local preachers want to do extra services?
Challenge 3 - What happens if more people than we can accommodate turn up? Would we be willing to turn away friends? Or even visitors?
Challenge 4 - How do we safeguard particularly vulnerable groups who might not want to attend whilst still making them feel welcome and included? Would we want to meet if we can’t all gather?
Challenge 5 – How do we facilitate worship that is meaningful and helps us connect with God whilst still keeping to the guidance of social distancing, hand cleansing, lack of contact, no singing etc.?
These are just some of the challenges we are facing and I share them with you to let you know that we, the Circuit Leadership Team, are already discussing possible strategies and ways forward. Over the coming weeks we expect to be in touch with each individual Church Council, via their minister, with questions and discussion points that explore possible ways forward and the choices churches might make. Alongside this, we will also be in touch with preachers and leaders of worship to see how they feel about leading worship in the current context. Please bear with us, this is unchartered territory and we are working with changing guidance and within dynamic Methodist Church policies. Whilst the decision to reopen rests with each Church Council and not the Circuit, it is our recommendation that we continue the current system of online worship with paper copies available for those who need them, and refrain from meeting for worship in our buildings until the appropriate conversations can fully take place.
As we wait to return, we remind ourselves that we can spend time with God anywhere. We can pray for the sick and ourselves anywhere. We can check on a friend via telephone, social media or video call. We can help others in all sorts of ways, and the Church is more than a building; it is each other, the people, you and I, and together we can show the love of God and Glorify Him in our communities whether we’re in our buildings or not.
On behalf of the Circuit Leadership Team
Addendum - the below is part of the new guidance that has been issued by the Methodist Church and appeared after the above letter was written but which we feel is significant:
‘“Church” can be wherever we gather or scatter, conscious of our calling as disciples of Jesus. We already knew this, but the lockdown has brought it into sharp focus. We are now permitted to open our buildings once more. A desire to “return to normal” is natural, but may not be practically possible or missionally necessary at this time. Our task in this moment is to consider what use of our buildings and what pattern of worship will best serve the discipleship of our people and the needs of our local community. As we emerge from lockdown, these questions can help us discern what God has been doing in us and in our communities. In this context, we can consider what God would have us do with our buildings and how God would have us worship:
• What have you learned during lockdown as a church that excites you about worship? What have you learned about evangelism and building relationships with new people?
• What have you not grieved for or missed as a church during lockdown? What might you decide not to pick up again?
• How have you perceived God’s presence and hiddenness?
• What has lockdown taught you about the foundations of your mission as a local church?’