First of all, I want to let you know that we are encouraged by your own recovery from the COVID-19 virus. Many Christians around the country were praying for you each day as well as for Carrie and your baby boy. We continue to pray for you, for your ongoing recovery and for wisdom for you, The Cabinet and the opposition leaders to have great wisdom as you lead the country through uncertain times. We also pray for each one of you that you will discover the peace, joy, hope and forgiveness for sin that Christ alone offers.
Secondly, I wanted to write as a church pastor to explain a little about why church leaders are asking you to prioritise permission to gather for public worship as part of your roadmap for the country. It is important to clarify a few things as I do so.
The first is that all church leaders I know want to ensure that whatever happens, we play our part in helping our communities to stay alert, control the virus and save lives. We will work at all times with the best advise available and in line with Government rules and guidelines to do this. We will seek to ensure that anything we do enables social distancing and provides for those who need to continue to shield or self-isolate.
The second clarification is that when we talk about church being open, our primary concern is not about buildings. Whilst some church traditions include an emphasis on opening buildings for private prayer for example, this is not the main emphasis for many. Indeed, I know many churches that do not own their own buildings and hire premises such as school halls, theatres and community buildings to meet. So our central need is not for permission to open buildings but permission to gather and advice on when and how to do this as safely possible.
Thirdly, we are prepared to think creatively about how to gather safely, just as we have done through the lockdown. For example this might include limiting attendance to an agreed capacity of buildings and if necessary opening up additional opportunities for people to meet. It may be that we need to refrain from public singing and instead listen to music. In some cases, the safest way possible to gather may be in open outdoor spaces.
Let me explain why this is so important and not merely a leisure or consumer need. First of all, as Christians we believe that public worship is important as we seek to gather as communities to praise God, to hear Scripture read and to encourage one another. However, I want to emphasise that we are not asking this simply for personal benefit. I believe that the need to gather, to have a level of social interaction and a sense of togetherness is important for everyone. Churches provide a public good and when we are able to open again, we will want to facilitate such opportunities for the whole community around us.
Further, as I’m sure you will know, Christians are often on the front line as medics, care home workers and volunteers running food banks, providing debt advice, mentoring and crisis support for families and children. Christians are often involved in providing pastoral support to those who are unwell or struggling. Church is often the place where problems are spotted and where people can come and disclose about difficulties and dangers at home such as domestic abuse without drawing attention to themselves.
So gathering provides an essential and practical support to many people who seeking to serve our communities through this tragedy. We have done and will continue to do as much as we possibly can in other ways such as through online church services. However, this only covers so much. For example, our own church has been heavily involved in supporting homeless people and hostel dwellers and the first point of contact is often through our Sunday evening gathering. We have no been able to keep in touch with most of them and given vulnerability to abuse and addictions this is of great concern to us.
It is for these reasons that we are keen to see as clear a pathway as possible towards opening again. To be clear, we do not want this to be rushed and so put at risk the progress already made with Coronavirus nor are we seeking to gather large crowds before that is safe again. However, we would like to see timetables and advice on how to move towards some form of gathering.
We would also ask that you carefully consider the best way forward to provide for weddings, funerals and baptisms. Additionally, guidance on how to provide one to one pastoral care for those in need, especially the bereaved would be welcome.
We continue to pray for you and for our country
Pastor, Bearwood Chapel