The grumbling of high church clergy should now lessen a bit. They were complaining, in some cases furiously, about the Chuch of England's decision to go further than the law required when it came to the lockdown, telling clergy not to open their churches at all, and not to broadcast services from them. Some were threatening to re-fight the Reformation over the issue, saying that low-church Welby would really rather preach from his own kitchen than admit that churches are a necessary site of authentic sacramental worship. The Church has now relaxed its rules, allowing vicars to pray in their churches and broadcast services from them.
And the Church has started to think aloud about the really interesting question, of how churches should respond to the easing of lockdown. Yesterday the Church in a press release envisaged ‘worship services with limited congregations meeting’, as soon as government advice allows it.
Some will laugh at this – aren’t Anglican congregations naturally limited? But of course plenty of churches have well over a hundred people on a normal Sunday, and social distancing wouldn’t really be possible.
The novel challenge could be rather good PR for the Church. If a church held four or five short services throughout Sunday, on a first-come-first-served basis, there would be queues outside it for much of the day, and passers-by would see that going to church really matters to people. Alternatively, some parishes might try open-air services, weather permitting, and if there’s not a suitable churchyard or garden, parishes might have to occupy the streets. Again, church-going would become visible in a new way.
There’s an also an opportunity in the more immediate phase, before even limited services are possible. For a month or two (or who knows, maybe ten), churches may be open only to a handful of people at a time. They will drop by to pray, to look around, to light a candle – as many do in normal times. Churches should see this as an opportunity to make new links with the wider community. For non-religious locals might wander in, to make a change from walking round the local park. It could be like an extended open day, with the vicar or a volunteer on hand to show them round, and discuss local (or big theological) issues. Some important conversations could start this way – people might look afresh at these normally-ignored features of their neighbourhood, and wonder what they think.