Why It’s time to return to in person church

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Since the delay to the completion of England’s roadmap out of lockdown, I’ve been including regular updates on Faithroots to help church leaders stay up to date with the data and plan ahead. Today I want to write to church members generally and explain why I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to begin the process of returning to in person meeting.  More specifically, my focus here is on why it is safe for you and so loving rather than not loving your neighbour to do so.

I am going to focus on safety and the current data about COVID not because that’s necessarily the most important thing in terms of reasons but because I know that you already know and agree with other things. We know that Scripture exhorts us to gather together. We know that whilst Zoom meetings enable something of this, that it isn’t the same as sitting in the same room to sing, hear Scripture and break bread together.  But the question for some time has been “what is the responsible thing to do?”  We want to love our neighbours, it isn’t just about nervousness about catching a deadly virus ourselves but the worry that we might pass it on to someone who is vulnerable. We also want to be a good witness and not bring the Gospel into disrepute by doing something reckless.

So, what we need to know is “will it be safe to return to church, safe for me and safe for others in the community?”   You may have seen the recent figures showing a third wave, a steep incline in COVID-19 cases, particularly driven by the Delta Variant and that may have caused further concern. It is likely that by the time we see full re-opening that we could be seeing 80000 cases per day.  That sounds worrying after our past experience of the virus and its deadly effect.  Back in the second wave we were seeing 60k cases per day and about 1000 deaths. In other words, the mortality rate for those who were infected was about 1 in 60.  So, that is one side of the story and it’s why the Government were more cautious about the final stages of their roadmap and June 19th was delayed.

However, that’s only one part of the picture.  There are a couple of other things to be aware of. The first is case prevalence in society. Currently it is reckoned that about 134 in 100,000  people in the community have caught COVID in the last week.That’s a national figure and it will vary because cases are concentrated in hotspots. For example, in my area the figure is 88 in 100,000 or less than 1 in 1000. In other words I’m more likely to live next door to someone from my local church than to sit next to someone with COVID in church. 

Furthermore, whilst we were seeing 1 in 60 deaths back in January the ratio is much better now and that’s because hospitalization rates are falling. We know that the vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospital admission and mortality. One dose of vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalisation by an estimated 57-85% whilst two does increases that to 85-98%.  Two doses of a vaccine reduce the likelihood of symptomatic infection by 76-84%.  In other words older members of your church are much less likely to catch COVID in the first place (hence current case growth is among the younger not yet vaccinated population) and even less likely to end up in hospital.  Back in the second wave, the number of people going into hospital was about 9% of cases, by early June this had reduced to 4-5% and it could well be as low as 2.5% now.  Whilst COVID isn’t without its risks, those risks are now greatly reduced.

Since July 4th last year, many churches have as far as possible begun to re-open for in person worship. It hasn’t been possible for all, especially those that do not own their own buildings and we’ve moved at different paces alert to different needs in different neighbourhoods. It’s not been easy either. There have been restrictions, face masks must be worn, social distancing observed and there has been no singing indoors. So church hasn’t been quite what we were used to. However, there has been a sense of fellowship and God at work in those gatherings. Very importantly, what we’ve seen is that because churches have been careful to observe regulations and guidance that this hasn’t increased the risk of COVID transmission. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, I’m not aware of any COVID cases arising in churches that I know have re-opened.

What this means is that whilst the best way of loving your neighbour in the past was by withholding from in person church to help keep everyone safe, the balance has changed. Now, I would suggest that the best way you can love them is by being physically present in church. This means that you are encouraging other believers by being alongside them. It means that churches can offer a physical presence in their communities for those who are lonely, fearful and looking for somewhere to go where they can find hope and peace. It means that our very act of worshipping together is itself a witness to our communities of the hope that we have.

Now, things won’t be quite back to normal yet.  At present if you turn up, you will need to wear a face mask, we can’t sing indoors yet and churches participate in test and trace. Restricted capacity means many churches are asking you to book in first.  Those restrictions should ease from the 19th July but some may continue a little longer. So for some of us, it is the restrictions that provide a bit of a barrier. I’d like to address some of those concerns here.

First of all, I’m aware that for some, there is the fear that attending church with test and trace in place may lead to you  having to self-isolate and the prospect of being alone at home is one that causes high levels of anxiety.  It is important that we seek to support and encourage one another.  It may well be that over the coming months that some of us will have to isolate again for a short period due to a positive test. First of all, remember that such periods of quarantine are temporary, a short period of suffering to protect others from longer periods of isolation.  We can face these challenges knowing that Christ is with us in our anxiety. Secondly, please don’t be afraid to talk with your church leaders about your anxieties. Most churches will want to support one another through whatever comes up ahead, just as we’ve supported one another through the darkest months of this pandemic.

Secondly, I know that a lot of the measures are frustrating and inconvenient. We may worry that they will take away some of the joy of meeting. I don’t want to pretend that in person meeting I perfect and just delight all the way at the moment. However, I would say that the inconveniences are worth it both as a way of loving others and because we persevere through the inconveniences and do experience joy and blessing in our gatherings.

So, I would encourage you to take the first step. Things will become easier as the restrictions lift further but it is possible in many cases to start stepping back into in person church now.  Why not book in to your church this Sunday?

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