Parish ministry in the pandemic – with no public worship, visiting or personal contact

TURN THE clock back a couple of months and I’m sure few of us would have predicted the restrictions to everyday life we now face. We’ve become acquainted with some new and unfamiliar phrases: lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing. Eleanor Parker in her blog, A Clerk of Oxford, called the whole situation ‘a long Lent’, which sounds much less frightening than ‘global pandemic’.1 Whichever term we use, it does not change the strange and uncertain times we have been living through, or the difficulties we have faced as clergy, in working out how we can best respond, particularly in light of the suspension of public worship and pastoral visitation.

We have been living through these unprecedented times together, allowing for slightly different restrictions in our two jurisdictions, but we all respond instinctively to events in different ways. Also, while as human beings we all have universal needs, I am conscious that a parish in rural Tyrone is not the same as a market town such as Dungannon, let alone inner-city Dublin or the wilds of West Cork. So what follows can only be a limited view of our dilemmas.

I should also mention that I am not in any sense of the word a technophile. Technology certainly provides means of responding to some of the challenges we now face in a way unthinkable even a decade ago, and I shall mention briefly some of the ways parishes have been using technology; but if it’s insights in that particular field you’re looking for then look away now!

What I can observe from first-hand experience is the remarkable way communities can pull together in times of crisis. This manifests itself in a myriad ways at both a formal and informal level. To give two examples: in my own parish of Moy we instigated a ‘buddy-system’ whereby every parishioner over the age of seventy,

who has agreed, is paired with a ‘buddy’ who will phone twice a week to check that they’re okay and if there is anything they need. Not that everyone grasped the concept at first; “Oh yes certainly,” one lady in her eighties responded, “I’ll go to the shops for anyone who needs anything.”

In a neighbouring parish, representatives of three different churches came together to organise a leaflet drop that provided details of people from local community groups who would help deliver food and medications to those who are self-isolating. Indeed, more than 1,000 groups have been set up in the UK to help those self-isolating. And of course, all this is backed up at an informal level. Reflecting the close-knit nature of a small rural community, not one of the parishioners I paired with a ‘buddy’ had not also been contacted by both neighbours and other parishioners.

For me it is these informal spontaneous out-workings of Christ’s command to love that leave the most indelible impression for, as William Temple put it, “There can be much pride and condescension in our giving of service. It is wholesome only when it is offered spontaneously on the impulse of real love; the conscientious offer of it is almost sure to ‘have the nature of sin’”.2 Whether formal or informal, reading again during Holy Week Archbishop Temple’s commentary on John’s Gospel, two other thoughts came to mind, one obvious, the other less so. First, in Moy, those who volunteered were young, for obvious reasons, and while most are regular church attenders, others are not. And often the best way to engage those ‘outside’ is to give them a job to do, for then they feel they are wanted and needed. Jesus Himself began His saving of the Woman of Samaria by saying, “Give me to drink” (John 4:8).3

And what of those receiving help – something many of us can be loathe to do? Whether it’s connected to the Protestant heresy that if only we work hard enough our future is assured I don’t know – (we’re definitely more Martha than Mary!) – but many of us don’t like to be beholden to anyone, a frame of mind which, Temple reminds me, is completely unchristian. Rather, he points out, “humility shows itself first in the readiness to receive service from our fellow-men and supremely from God”.4 Having said that, accepting the offer of a ninety-two-year-old parishioner to cook for me might have been pushing it a bit far! The suspension of public worship since St Patrick’s Day presents us with a huge challenge in terms of nourishing faith. Most parishes seem to be providing some form of online service on a Sunday, and perhaps a mid-week one as well. I hope I’m not the only cleric who, in order to get ideas, has scoured websites and Facebook pages in the last few weeks to discover what other clergy are doing only to be impressed and intimidated in equal measure by some professionally produced Sunday services, daily podcasts and the like. Sunday Schools and some youth groups have also delivered resources online. For the less technologically minded,

some churches still produced DVDs and delivered a The programme of daily readings and prayers before suspension the more stringent restrictions came into effect. Every parish is different with different resources, a different demographic, and different needs, but whatever it is we are doing, parishioners appreciate that clergy are doing something in
these difficult times. What I’ve found intriguing here at St James, Moy, is that those watching the online service I conduct far outnumber not only those who attend on any given Sunday, but also all registered parishioners! This highlights the effectiveness of social media in communicating the Good News, particularly to those who may be loathe to cross the threshold of a church. Perhaps a survey by researchers at the University of Durham ten years ago shed some light when it suggested that while 96.6% of those surveyed
looked forward to the sermon and 60% said that it gave them a sense of God’s love, members of different denominations had very different expectations: Roman Catholics wanted to be educated, Baptists to be converted, independent Evangelicals to be challenged and encouraged and Anglicans . . . to be entertained! 5 Echoes of my former rector who said that one of his predecessors in Cambridge used to grumpily exclaim he was there to feed the sheep, not to entertain the goats! This does lead to two questions. First, will these current restrictions have a long-term impact on church attendance? Second, how will it affect our spirituality? Will it challenge people’s worldview, particularly that of western materialist individualism?6 I don’t know; but I am drawn back to something else my former rector said, this time in all seriousness, all God demands of any of us is faithfulness. But how do we remain faithful in such straightened times? First of all, I have no doubt the Church does have something to say in the midst of this crisis, not least in being bearers of hope, the neglected theological virtue. And in these anxious times we do need that hope. Across the centuries hope has proved to be not only the bravest but the most essential of all virtues. After all it wasn’t just in the dark days of world wars that hope was to prove itself, but in every sphere of life and creativity as well. It was hope that inspired the greatest and most successful peace movements in the world and enabled them to persevere. It was hope that kept scientists pursuing their greatest discoveries despite countless setbacks. And very often it is hope alone that carries us as individuals and families through so many difficulties in life with all of those stresses, anxieties and fears that confront us across the years. In all these contexts hope is the key; and here we’re not talking about Pollyanna optimism, or even faith, as some sort of magic wand, but looking to a hope which is beyond ourselves, to the One who whether acknowledged or not is always with us.

Keeping in touch

Second, an important means of communicating that hope is by drawing alongside others and sharing in their experiences. But how can we do that in these current circumstances? As someone who spends 70% of my time in pastoral visiting, I firmly believe that if we don’t care for and show an interest in our parishioners they can’t be expected to show any interest in us when we talk of Christ. These restrictions have left me with a deep feeling of unease that I am failing to be there for people when needed. These are anxious times, not only concerning Covid-19 itself with its economic impact and the feelings of isolation and ‘cabin-fever’ that it brings, but also in terms of the strains it puts on family life, with statistics showing that domestic abuse has increased by an estimated 25%.7 Nothing replaces a visit in person; so much communication is non-verbal and even media such as Skype and Facetime don’t deliver that all-important sense of presence. Besides, they are also impracticable for many more vulnerable parishioners. However, while people will be much less likely to give any sense of their vulnerabilities and needs in response to an out-of- the-blue phone-call, the telephone does allow us to keep in touch on an individual basis with more people more often than we previously were likely to have done. It is not ideal, but we can still express a human solidarity and lay the foundations to build on when restrictions are lifted.

Finally, returning to ‘the long Lent’ with which I started, and the self-denial and patience the restrictions we have been facing require, perhaps we can also use this ‘long Lent’ as a time to examine our own ways of doing things. So here I would like to quote an article from the religious correspondent of the Times newspaper written over ninety years ago, words even more relevant today than they were in 1929:

Plainly the great need of the Church of God and of its members today is quietness. The Church is too busy. Its organisations are elaborate, widespread and active. Councils, conferences, conventions and committees follow fast one upon another. Leaders of the Church live in a whirl of engagements and are seldom at home with their own people and are often strangers to themselves. Absorbed in religious issues, they find no time to gain personal experience of the realities of which they speak. And the attentive hearer can discern signs of effort on their part as when men deal with subjects of which they have only superficial or second-hand information. Whenever this happens ineffectiveness is inevitable and disaster is imminent. Those who would help others to respond to the claims of the Christian faith and share its gracious energies, must first themselves bear the mysteries of God and in their own hearts, build a sanctuary of the Divine presence in which they can retire into that constant communion of the soul with God which brings true knowledge and power.