In my first article, I argued that Evangelical churches should be proactively participating and making recommendations to the government about how we move out of lockdown.
In part two I want to think through some of the scenarios and how we might respond. I notice that the church of England is already putting forward it’s own approach to the strategy. I am concerned that we don’t fall into the trap of accepting that this will be the way forward or allow the Government to take it as read that this is the view of the church. The Church of England paper from the House of Bishops looks unacceptable to me from an independent evangelical perspective but lso I suspect from that of many evangelicals – and maybe even liberals (basically anyone who is not high church) in the Church of England too.
I am unhappy with it because
- Theologically it places the emphasis as feared on performed sacrament rather than gathered worship
- In terms of church structures it separates out a clergy from a laity.
- It over-emphasises the place of buildings over the importance of a gathered people
- It reads as something that has been put together out of rarefied privilege rather than being in touch with on the ground community life.
I also have picked up some nervousness, it won’t be possible for us to do social distancing -and people see us as equivalent to cafes and cinemas rather than similar to workplaces. I am not sure about this. As I will explain below, I can see ways in which we will be able to move forward with things, of course sticking in line with the law, and best guidance. But I want to challenge that assumption that we are perceived as a consumer hobby option rather than something essential. I think that is very pessimistic and maybe says more about the self-perception of churches, dare I say it within a middle class context.
I am confident that churches like Bearwood Chapel and others I know in inner city and estate contexts are not regarded like that, not just by believers but by the wider community. Why? Well because increasingly over a number of years we have been seen as an integral part of the community. Of course that means wider things than preaching the Gospel – but our community recognises that people turn up and are offered hope and support. Our community knows that practical help is offered too to the needy. And there is a point there too. Some of the most practically needy and spiritually hungry people in our community are from the homeless and hostel community. Whilst I am grateful for the many ways in which we have made online connections, I am also concerned about these guys because this is not really a way they connect in and so we have lost touch with some for the time being but hopefully not for too long.
Now onto practicalities. I want to suggest three scenarios or options here.
Scenario 1: We are allowed to move to “bubbles.” If so, we could base these around house group/cell church approaches with continued online connection but moving from just a family watching online together.
Scenario 2: Open air gatherings are permitted. We start to provide a mixture of outdoor services in parks and on playing field space. With enforced social distancing and co-operating with local authorities including the police (planned congregating is probably better than unplanned anyway).
Scenario 3: We are allowed to have people meeting with social distancing and restricted capacity. In Spain, I understand the proposal is to allow people in at reduced capacity (30% of official capacity to start with then increasing to 50% in the next phase). Personally I think this is the most helpful approach to moving in an orderly manner towards full building use. The simplest option with this is to do what some of us have been doing and run additional services. At Bearwood, if everyone turns up we are at around 40 -50% capacity at each of our services. I suspect that we will have reduced attendance due to some older and vulnerable people still shielding. Additionally, we might keep children separate for the whole service. As vulnerable categories return, we could look at options for them to join in via a relay from another part of the site to allow some distancing (I remember that this policy was used during Swine Flu with people with health issues sitting in church balconies). So, we would probably be okay to run with our existing services but we could add an additional afternoon service if need be.
I recognise that some churches from the IX Marks tradition place a significant emphasis on having a single gathering. They may need to do some further work on their thinking about how to approach this type of short term solution.
I also note the concern that not every church will be able to gather. I don’t think we should work on the basis that if some can’t then none can. We do need to keep working together and there has already been a lot of co-operation church to church that hopefully will continue. This might involve a resource rich church providing help with a church that needs additional logistical support. It might mean a small congregation in a large building lending space for an other church struggling with space (or e.g. if rented space is not available). It may mean some churches lending their congregation out -and if that results in some ongoing relationships and collaborative plantig and revitalisation then that could be a good thing.
There may be plenty of challenges ahead but there can be opportunities too.