For the first time, I’m posting a piece on two of my blogs, because it overlaps their topics. The theme is church-related, so SharedConversations, but it’s also relevant to my status as a sort-of-retired person, and when I’ve posted before about COVID-19, aka The Thing, I’ve done so on my TheRetiringAcademic blog. So, both. Hopefully very few of you will receive it twice!
Today, not least in the interests of recording where we are in March 2022 in order to look back on that later, I am reflecting on what it all feels like now, partly stimulated by a casual meeting with someone who used to come to our church but who hasn’t been for two years and told me quite defiantly that she wouldn’t be returning until it was ‘back to normal’. There are other once-familiar faces I haven’t seen in church since it all started, and when I’ve met these people elsewhere they’ve said much the same. These are older people, some but not all of them with health conditions who’ve needed to shield. They were, once, the regulars.
Thinking about that, I’ve been wondering what ‘normal’ could look like, in church terms. This was helped because I had a bit of normal earlier this week, with a garden visit courtesy of the excellent National Trust. A couple of my earlier posts have focused on one of my favourite places, Greys Court; my distress at its closure on March 2020 at the start of the first lockdown, and then its reopening and my visit in September 2020 when we no longer had to wake up in the night to pre-book a slot. As I’ve said before, it is a place that is very important to my sanity, and when things were particularly dire with my mother’s declining health, following the steady progress of the seasons there was an antidote to my own feelings of powerlessness and uselessness. We were back there today, almost exactly two years after that day of closure. The bulbs are coming out; the weather was good enough for us to sit outside for a cup of tea. The gardeners were back in action, most notably clearing out the pond, a job which they said had needed doing for some years. Here I am in March 2020 being very depressed about the world shutting down: I was rather more cheerful today, not least when I spotted my first fritillary of the season.
For me, ‘normal’ in church terms means several things. First of all – and here the National Trust experience is highly relevant – not having to book to go. When the church service I usually attend was functioning with restricted numbers and booking-only, I never went: I preferred to get up early for the 8 a.m. service, unrestricted because numbers are small anyway, and I came to value its quietness and simplicity. So, there’s a lesson: not being ‘normal’ has its benefits. I have never been a fan of streamed online services, and when I tried going to my usual service online, I didn’t feel involved, but I know others found the online provision valuable. Another lesson: one size doesn’t fit all. I know of other churches where they have tried doing services in small groups on Zoom, meaning there’s more interaction than you get by watching a livestream or a recording of one.
When the requirement for pre-booking at our church ended, and I returned to my usual Sunday service, I found it very disturbing that the chairs were all pulled away from each other so that each of us sat in a little personal space. I felt exposed; I didn’t feel part of a community. I also hated the way that communion was brought to us by the priest, rather than us going up to the altar, but that gave me an insight into how it feels if you are not physically able to join the row of people moving towards the altar. No sharing the Peace, other than by making various gestures at each other, from the Hindu namaste gesture (an interesting bit of convenient inter-faith activity) to assorted waves and even a hippy ‘Peace’ sign, which cheered me up. Human contact was not allowed, and there were no refreshments after the service ended, so the aspects of going to church which emphasised being a community with others were missing. I felt sad for those whose one chance of a hug every week was in church. I strongly disliked the amount of PPE being used which, even at the height of the pandemic, felt like overkill: at one point, for the celebrant (posh church word for person leading a communion service), mask, visor, gloves and special tongs for picking up the wafer and dropping it in the communicant’s hand. And then there was the music; or, rather, there wasn’t. Recorded music; eventually a choir of 6 singers, max.
So where are we now? The chairs are pushed back together again, so it feels like church is more about ‘us’ and less about ‘me’. We go up to the dais to receive communion from the priest, and now the priest can be accompanied by a lay communion assistant. No wine, though, other than for the priest: no common cup. No tongs, no visor, no gloves – gradually, slowly, they all went – but sanitising hands before distributing the consecrated wafers is still done. The choir is back, and masks are off for the anthem. We can sing too, but with masks on; masks are still encouraged during services. Online services continue, and that provision has now extended; Evensong, too, is recorded. I know a former member of the congregation who emigrated and has not been to church in her new city for two years; she was very pleased when I sent her the link to the recordings, and enjoyed recognising people who were her friends.
It feels to me like this is the new normal. Masks are up to local churches and, although not everyone at ours is now wearing one, I am, but just because I think it reassures some others. I am definitely ready to stop, but some people, I suspect, won’t ever feel like that. Will the common cup ever return? I’ve read of churches which have reintroduced it, and where some people take the wine, but others don’t. The absence of the common cup felt terrible to me two years ago, but now I have got used to it; probably others feel the same. Will we again touch each other’s hands during the Peace? Maybe, but I bet some of us will then sanitise with our own supply of sanitiser.
As for refreshments after the service, those are about as normal as it gets, as currently many of us move to a corner of the church for tea, coffee and biscuits. We are in the same building as we were for our mostly-masked service, but many of us – not all – remove our masks and chat at close range. Before the winter, this was happening outside, but at the moment we stay inside. Will that change when the weather improves, and will more people feel able to stay on if coffee time happens outside?
Some church-related activities have mostly resumed. One of the two care homes I visit with the vicar is now open to us again (negative LFT permitting). Our local Street Pastor patrols are back to normal, but with teams of three rather than four, because the long period of not going out has meant some people got out of the habit, or decided they were no longer up to a Friday night on the streets. The annual ecumenical service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity didn’t happen, but instead one local church had an afternoon with a series of tables with points to pray about and activities for those who are less into words: it was thoughtful, and meant we weren’t all in the same small space at the same time.
Lots of church remains online. The course I am taking with the diocese is online. The mid-week reflective service is online, as are the Lent Groups. PCC is online. Diocesan Synod has decided to have one face-to-face meeting a year and to remain online the rest of the time. General Synod is hybrid. While I am comfortable attending General Synod in person, I am very happy indeed not to have to go to a distant part of the diocese for a Diocesan Synod meeting, although ask me again whether I feel like that after tomorrow’s scheduled four hours on Zoom. I know people who don’t have computers and so I’m well aware that they are being excluded. But if we went back to meeting on-site, others would feel unable to attend.
After the world started to reopen, overall there has been a steady trickle of people returning to church as their own sense of the balance of risk has shifted. While writing this, I talked to people about why they came back when they did, and they spoke about feeling that the vaccines helped (some have had their fourth dose) and that medical care for people who catch the virus has improved. Yet our vicar, vaccinated and extremely cautious for all these months, caught it for his first time only a week ago. There are still formerly-regular attenders who haven’t returned. I am not convinced that they ever will.