In times of conflict and suffering, churches have served as a refuge and a sanctuary for protection and comfort. Even the bombs of the Second World War did not close churches as places for the community to gather. But the coronavirus pandemic has not only suspended all public worship in churches, it has closed the buildings themselves. There has been nothing more symbolic of this era of social distancing than the south doors of St Peter’s Church shut and locked.
In addition to church services, much anticipated family celebrations such as baptisms and weddings have been postponed.
The church closures follow the announcement by the Prime Minister of wide-ranging restrictions as part of a national and international effort to help limit the spread of the disease.
The last act of worship in St Peter’s Church was on Mothering Sunday with just a handful of people allowed inside to conduct the service, which was streamed live on social media. Canon Stephen Webster was accompanied by assistant curate Rev Mark Donnelly, Youth Minister Martha Barnes and the pastor of the Baptist church, the Reverend Martin Hills.
After the restriction announcements in mid-March, Oundle church leaders had only a few days to coordinate practical and technical know-how to seamlessly continue delivery of services to their communities.
“As a church community we are working out what this ‘new normal’ looks like and where our place is within it. How do we ‘do church’, how do we live as community when we are isolated, how do we support and care for one another from a distance? These are big questions and big challenges that we need to face,” said Reverend Martin Hills, Minister of Oundle Baptist Church.
By 18 March, the churches had begun a collaborative project to conduct a daily series of noon prayers broadcast on their Facebook page. Initially recorded on iPhones, the broadcasts now benefit from tech upgrades, including a camera stand, new microphones and an auto cue.
The lay minister at St Leonard’s Glapthorn, Charles Wide, also broadcasts weekday evening prayers at 5.30pm on Youtube.
The Sunday services are more dynamic, taking advantage of technological innovations to bring the congregations together for a full service of worship within their own homes.
“Inevitably our skills with technology have developed. On just the second Sunday service, our team of musicians linked up with one another from their various homes to record songs; it was tremendous to witness such innovative work,” said Canon Webster. “The Sunday Morning Live 10.30am services are followed by an invitation to join our online coffee break, Church Actually, via Zoom. From there, we organise break-out areas for smaller groups to chat and encourage one another.”
The Baptist Church conducts its own Sunday morning worship service, Sunday prayers at 5pm on Zoom, and a monthly online communion service.
An unexpected benefit of going online is being able to reach people who do not attend services in person. “To our delight these have been viewed by many we have not yet had the pleasure of meeting,” said Reverend Hills.
Both church communities have mobilised teams of volunteers to run errands, collect shopping and prescriptions for those who are self-isolating. Dedicated phone lines and “connect hubs” ensure that people maintain regular contact with each other.
“This time is a powerful reminder that Church is not a building; it’s a community of people,” said Canon Webster.