Reflections from the pews
A survey of parishioners by Chris Phillips reveals the problems caused by lockdown, and the true cost of the suspension of public worship. In showing how precious our church buildings and corporate worship are to the People of God, however, it also encourages us to ask what the Spirit might be saying thorough them about the Church of the future.
As we experience the joy of being able to worship together again, there is much to digest from the past few months. We are in the process now of moving forward into a “new normal”. There has consequently never been a better opportunity to reflect on why our churches are so precious, the evangelistic potential they offer, and the crucial necessity of physical, corporate worship.
In the course of our preparations to reopen for public worship at my parish, St Mary’s, Willesden, I wrote to my congregation seeking their thoughts – what they felt the biggest losses had been over the past few months; what the gains had been; and how we might respond to our experiences. The words of these ordinary lay Christians have been fascinating and with their permission, I offer them to the wider Church in the hope that we might not only take seriously the damage that has been done to the Church’s mission, but that through them we might listen to what the Spirit is saying to us.
Overwhelmingly the biggest loss has been the enforced fast from the Eucharist. Reading my parishioners’ words is deeply troubling, as they write about the “physical pain” they have felt in being unable to receive Holy Communion. One writes, “I am… angered at the way the hierarchy of the Church has been complicit in this, accepting what the secular authority has decreed without any real protest or meaningful engagement”.
Some of my parishioners are old enough to remember the Blitz, and they speak of the dedication of clergy of the past who risked their lives to bring the sacrament to the faithful. Today, “much is said about physical and mental wellbeing, but very, very little about spiritual health”.
The loss of fellowship caused by being unable to gather was perhaps inevitable, but it is clear that online worship in any form will never be seen as the equivalent of in-person gatherings. Older congregation members feel as though their ministry has been forcibly taken away from them, as they have been unable to volunteer in the usual ways. All this has led normally very resilient and optimistic people to fall into deep depression, which I fear will have a lasting impact.
Conversely it is evident that the closure of our church building has led to a deeper realisation of our need for one another. Here in Willesden we are a very diverse community, and while this has many advantages, it can lead to smaller cultural sub-groups. During the lockdown it has become necessary for people here to reach out beyond their usual social circles and be more open with one another. Perhaps this will bear fruit for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in the coming years?
The additional time gained by the restrictions on our movement has been deeply appreciated. Those lucky enough to have gardens (a rarity in much of this parish) have been able to enjoy more time in them, and regardless of the size of their homes there has been less of an expectation to be active and on the go. People have had more time for one another. But this has also led to people having to confront some of their demons, particularly those who live alone.
People have realised the need to value one another more as social contact has been limited. The social events we have held on Zoom have been very successful, and the live streaming of worship has been appreciated even by those who have not been able to access it. But it has helped people to realise how precious face-to-face contact is, both with one another and with Jesus Christ, present in the sacrament of the altar. “We must give people a sense of belonging again… let the people’s voices be heard!”, writes one person, who has clearly felt a sense that the congregation has been scattered by being unable to come together.
Above all, those who wrote to me have questioned the right of the Church of England to speak as the established Church any more, having abdicated its national role during the crisis: “it is a scandal that there has been no call for days of prayer, or the Archbishop speaking to the nation to encourage us”.
The return to public worship
There was an incredible joy etched on the faces of my parishioners who tentatively returned when our first public Mass was offered. Numbers were low, reflecting the continuing fear in a community which has suffered terrible losses during the pandemic, and the ongoing concern that BAME people are at an increased risk of infection (my parish is overwhelmingly made up of people of Caribbean and African origin). But while it is clear that the road to recovery for parishes like mine is long and financially uncertain, it is being able to gather in the parish church for worship and fellowship that matters.
Any move to undermine the parish system or reduce investment in poor and deprived urban areas like ours would be a betrayal of those whose faithfulness is not matched by their ability to maintain an ancient building and to meet the full cost of the priestly ministry they so desperately need.
Conclusion: the need for listening
I hope that the Bishops will listen very carefully to what the Spirit is saying to the Church through the voices of ordinary people in pews across the nation in the wake of this period in our history. Whilst we are living in anxious times and with the ever-present worry of a local lockdown, the relief and joy at being able to worship in church once again is palpable. It is to be hoped that, in the light of the experience of the impact of the restrictions on people’s spiritual wellbeing, this freedom will not be so easily relinquished in future.
The Rev’d Christopher Phillips
Vicar of St Mary’s, Willesden