Concerning Coronavirus and Public Worship IV

19 June 2020

Dear Worshipper

Concerning Coronavirus (COVID-19) and re-opening for funerals and private prayer

I am sure you may be aware that the Government recently gave permission for churches to re-open their buildings for private prayer and for funeral services.

Anecdotally, it seems that about a third of churches and cathedrals have been able to do that already, while the rest remain closed.

Here in West Malling and Offham, I have been working with our Churchwardens and our PCC, the church council, to work out what is best to do here. We have carefully read the Government guidance when it was eventually published and we’ve also poured over a variety of documents published by the Church of England and the Diocese of Rochester.

We have put together a plan on what needs to happen and put together a risk assessment. I want to say thank you to the various people in the two churches who have been helping me to do that.

Re-opening our buildings at this time is not simply a matter of propping open the front doors and letting people come and go as they please. In order to re-open, the buildings must be cleaned and then cleared of all hymn books, prayer books and other items you might usually touch. We also need to cordon off some pews and cordon off parts of pews to maintain a 2m physical distance. Hand-washing stations need to be set-up, floor markings and notices put in place. Much like you might see in one of the local supermarkets.

But unlike the supermarkets, we don’t have lots of paid staff to do this. We are already underway with doing all that’s required and we should complete these preparations in the next two weeks at the latest. Thank you to those who have offered to help already, we will be contacting you soon if we haven’t already done so.

I am hoping that the buildings are ready by July the 5th.

But ready for what?

I have met with both West Malling and Offham PCCs this week to decide on our priorities. We have also polled our Electoral Roll for both churches to hear how those who attend our churches regularly were feeling.

Government have said we can only currently do funerals and private prayer. But those two things are not necessarily pulling in totally the same direction and they need different things.

In both churches, having discussed it with our leaders, we are agreed that our priority is to be able to re-open for funeral services in church. While we have had graveside burials regularly through the lockdown, the compassionate response for our wider community is to have the option ready for families of conducting a funeral in church.

As well as the various restrictions I’ve already described, we would have a maximum capacity that would still mean attendance is restricted. At Offham, we would only have room for five households. At West Malling, the number is fourteen households. But that’s still way off our usual capacities. But it’s a start.

Being able to handle a funeral safely is the first step on the road to other things and it’s a good first step. Not only does it offer compassion to grieving families, but generally people attending funerals know each other. They are often from the same households or bubbles. So there is less risk than opening in a way where lots of people from lots of disparate households come together like your average Sunday service.

If we can do funerals well, I anticipate weddings might be next. Although whether wedding couples want to change their plans and host small, restricted ceremonies will be up to them.

Gathering for Sunday worship still lies some way down the tracks and I’ll talk more about that and the challenges of that another day.

Being in church for worship is not the same as going to Marks and Spencer. You behave differently, you physically do different things, you touch and interact with the building and space in different ways, you’re there for different lengths of time. There are complexities. In that sense there are very good reasons why churches were allowed to re-open in the earliest phases of the lockdown being eased.

And that brings us to private prayer. Although the Government have said we can re-open for private prayer and that no supervision is necessary, I am personally uncomfortable with that. I have discussed it with the PCCs and, while we recognise it’s a loss to some of us, and we know there’s a wider community of people who do pop in, the majority view in both churches shared my level of discomfort. Indeed, when we asked you, between 70 and 80% of people on the Electoral Roll of both churches were not keen to re-open for private prayer at this stage.

Although Government have not required it, I think supervision for private prayer is absolutely necessary at the moment. There have been cases worldwide of people being infected after going to church and sitting in a seat or a pew where someone with covid-19 coronavirus, a few hours earlier in a different service of worship, had previously sat.

As you’ll know, opening for private prayer means people come and go as they wish. But when you come and go in that way, you have no idea who has sat where before you. The only solution is to have someone in the building who does know, who supervises, and when someone leaves, they quietly go over to that place and sanitise it… just as the supermarkets sanitise the shopping baskets after someone has used them.

Different churches may adopt different approaches. You may disagree with me that this is necessary. But, ultimately, the person responsible to decide in this instance for West Malling and Offham is me. And I’m not happy with opening if we don’t also supervise and take responsibility for keeping each pew sanitised.

Supervision means people to supervise and that limits what we can do. But it also cuts across the purpose of opening for private prayer in the sense that we don’t have the people to supervise all day every day. And if you can’t do that, people can’t just pop in when they want… and popping in when you want is kind of the point of having the buildings open in the way we normally do. You’d have to know when the church was open and then make the special trip.

So, having discussed it with the PCCs, we are not saying a total no to opening for private prayer but we’re going to do it a in very limited way and it’s not our priority. We’re going to suck it and see by perhaps opening one Sunday from mid-morning to mid-afternoon in a few weeks time and see whether people come. We’ll advertise it to you in due course when we’re ready to host such a time.

Public worship, Sunday services, remain some way away, I’m afraid. We will continue to offer online worship each Sunday and it’s been encouraging to see so many of you taking part in that. I’m also interested in coming days to talk with our church leaders about we can best supplement and improve what we are doing now.

As I said to you in March, there is a calling upon us during lockdown. We were to be people of prayer in our homes, to go deeper with God in study of his word, to take ownership and responsibility for nurturing our faith. And there’s also a calling to humbly serve those around us in our communities. To be the healing hands and feet of Jesus to a broken world.

Lockdown may be easing in some ways, but that calling for us as the Christian church has not changed.

May the Lord watch between us while we’re apart from each other.

Love God, love your neighbour.

I hope very much to see you soon.

Yours in Christ

Rev David Green

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