Should we close church or should we not?
I was asking myself this last week. In the first lockdown there was no choice. In the current one safe worship is permitted.
A friend advised me not to consult too widely. ‘In fact’, he said, ‘I can’t see much benefit from consulting at all! Look at what people around England are saying about church closures on social media. Apparently, he told me, ‘it has become a ‘toxic’ debate with people on either side ‘shouting at each other.” I could see his point but did feel it best to see what others thought, especially those with leadership roles in our church.
I asked clergy and churchwardens what they thought. We carefully thought and discussed and decided we would remain open on Sunday for Mass. We would not particularly encourage attendance, and instead we’d emphasise our online presence. We would take extra care and discourage any socialising, and shorten the length of the service. We would review the situation on a weekly basis.
As I waited for Mass on Sunday to begin I wondered how many, if any, would come. In fact more came than had come the previous week. That puzzled me a little. It was not what I expected. It was particularly puzzling as several regular members had, understandably taken the decision not to attend.
Afterwards I reflected on who had come. Most were under 40 years old. Most did not engage in our social media activities. Many of those attending that Mass would not have known one another.
What was clear was that some, because of the restrictions, were socially isolated. We had, for example, students not able to interact with other students, a father far from home – his wife recently having given birth in the home country, a woman suffering anxiety who finds peace by being in the church.
Clearly, those attending found comfort and solace in being there. They felt less isolated. They were welcomed and through the Sacrament connected with others and with God. They were spiritually fed, hopefully in a way which they were seeking. In this way, I hope, they were strengthened.
No matter how high quality online worship is, and some is being wonderfully done, it clearly is not engaging some church people, especially that group of people who receive much by being present at Mass but are not particularly concerned to mix socially with their co-worshippers.
Public safety and health must, of course, be the main priority in these pandemic days, yet at the same time we have to be aware of mental and social health issues which affect us all. Closing church for worship is not an easy thing for the priest It has some significant pastoral and spiritual consequences, some of which may not be easily seen.
This is the first entry in a ‘Lockdown Diary’ which Fr Ian will be keeping on our church blog through the current lockdown.