When people have come to join us at Bearwood from a more Roman Catholic or High Church background, there are often some tell-tale signs. One is the tendency to arrive as close to the start time as possible and leave quickly at the end avoiding much social interaction with others.
So, when I first saw the Government’s guidance on opening places of worship, it immediately struck me that the guidance reflected that type of perspective. The initial aim was to enable people to use church buildings as places to go for private prayer. Even as we were given greater permission to open for corporate worship, this thinking was still in place. Currently the guidance is that we are to dismiss people from the place of worship immediately as soon as the meeting ends. The whole site is included within those terms so that even the possibility of stopping for a natter in the carpark is discouraged.
As well as a particular perspective on what public worship involves, there are of course the practical safety concerns about what happens once people get into close conversation. It is worth noting that the guidance when it first went out assumed that face masks would be voluntary rather than a legal requirement.
So, I wanted to first of all highlight why for many of us, the current situation is unsatisfactory and does not even get us close to true public worship. The best way to do this is to highlight a couple of Bible passages. First of all, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says
“26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”
Secondly, Ephesians 5:15-21 says
“15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Both of these passages show that public worship is not just about my own individual relationship with God, hearing him speak and offering my prayers. Rather, it is collective with a strong sense of care and encouragement for one another. A worship service that does not provide for this is seriously deficient.
Furthermore, let’s consider this practically. We know that social isolation brings other problems in terms of emotional well-being. We are also aware that pubs and cafes are providing contexts where people can have social contact with one other household/bubble. Of course that only provides for those in a position to eat and drink out. We might also add that unlike with pubs and restaurants, attendance at church is dependent upon wearing facemasks.
Now, what is preferable? That people engage in social contact in contexts where there isn’t clarity or accountability about staying within the rules and guidance for social distancing. Or, would it be better to have safe environments where such things can happen within guidelines.
Therefore, my view is that we need to identify approaches within the spirit of the guidelines but so long as we do not break the law and neglect the regulations, there should be some freedom and flexibility to help us provide for appropriate social contact within our churches. This might include providing some space for people to talk and pray for each other whilst maintaining distancing during the service. This could involve a break point where people are encouraged to walk around the outside along with one other household (at the correct distance apart). This will create a greater sense of one another ministry and I believe will be helpful for the well-being of people too.