“My Church in in Tier 4 or in Lockdown – should we stay open for worship?”
The law and Government guidance says that yes, your church may remain open for public worship. However, as Synod Moderator, I strongly recommend that you should cease in-person worship until your Tier level decreases.
Neither the Synod nor the Moderators nor even General Assembly can order your church to close because of the pandemic. However, for some months the Synod Moderators have urged churches to consider not what they may do, but what they should do. You know the statistical evidence as well as I do: this second wave is now more serious than the first wave, and hundreds of people across England are dying every day as a result of Coronavirus.
As “Covid-secure” buildings, churches are supposed to be safe places to meet. But the truth is that whenever people from different households gather, the risk of cross-infection increases. Unlike the first wave of the pandemic, a very significant number of people with a positive Covid-test result (some estimates say 1 in every 3) are not displaying symptoms. It is increasingly likely that we will come into contact with someone who may pass the virus to us without realising that they were infected themselves. To put it another way, there is a real possibility that you may be Covid-positive without knowing it, or the person just ahead of you on the way into church is, and whoever becomes infected as a result of you both being in church together may suffer considerably more than the carrier, perhaps even with a fatal result. It is still true that the older one is, the more likely it will be that any Covid infection will be more serious. The same is true for anyone with underlying health conditions, and those from Black and Minority Ethnic communities. It is a risk that I believe is not worth taking.
If your Elders’ Meeting (or the equivalent council in an LEP) decides that the church should remain open, in spite of this recommendation, there are some steps that you really must follow:
I want to be clear that any minister or lay preacher who, out of care for themselves and others, chooses NOT to lead in-person worship at this time will have my full support, and will certainly not be subject to discipline for this reason. Elders’ Meetings (and equivalent councils in LEPs) must not put pressure on people to act against their conscience on this matter, and they must have particular regard for the safety and wellbeing of anyone they wish to invite to lead worship, not putting them at undue risk. This specifically includes, but it isn’t limited to, those at increased risk because of age, health condition and ethnicity.
I do also understand that in some very localised areas the infection rates will be noticeably lower than in neighbouring towns and communities. Please don’t be complacent about this – that situation is constantly changing. The fact that the latest published numbers for your community are lower than others doesn’t meant that is the case even today, let alone tomorrow.
Finally, I know that some of our churches will find it easier to move to online worship than others, or to distribute paper-based worship resources. I would remind you that the URC are still providing both a daily devotion and a weekly act of worship, available online at https://devotions.urc.org.uk/ I am also aware of the need to be in human contact to overcome loneliness: even a daily phone call isn’t the same as meeting them in person in church, but it will make a difference.
Yet in all this, we know that there is hope. There is perpetual hope in Christ – God-with-us always, to the very end of the age. There is also hope in the vaccines currently being deployed. This situation will not last forever, but I do urge you to take all reasonable steps to endure these last few months. The pandemic will end; it will be safe to meet one another again. Let’s redouble our efforts to care for one another both in the things we refrain from doing and in the countless acts of kindness that so many have displayed throughout 2020.
My prayers for you continue.
January 5, 2020
I am writing just after returning from a visit to India. I was representing the United Reformed Church at a meeting of Church of North India mission partners, and to join in the start of their “year of jubilee” (see Leviticus 25:8-55) ahead of the 50th anniversary of the CNI’s formation which will fall on Advent Sunday (Nov 29th) next year.
Although I’m not sure that the mission partners’ consultation has achieved much, so far, in helping them to discern what their mission priorities for the next ten years should be, it was good to be part of their conversation.
A number of things particularly struck me during my visit, not least being encouraged that they are seeking a wide input from their 2 million members, and that they are planning ten years ahead.
But the theme of jubilee (including blowing ram’s horn – a shofar) was the most powerful aspect. Indian Christians are almost exclusively from the most marginalised members of society (the Dalit or “untouchables”, who could be hit for even allowing their shadow to fall on a person of higher caste, and the “tribal” peoples). They have lived with oppression, but have found freedom in Christ, who came to save us all, regardless of class, ethnicity, or background. The Prince of Peace came to bring real peace to humanity.
Jubilee is all about liberation and justice for the oppressed and marginalised. That is also why Jesus came (Luke 4:16-21). These are values which we will do well as we seek to decide which way we should vote in the General Election, and how we should order our church life and mission efforts.
I hope that your advent preparations and Christmas celebrations will leave time to reflect on these values of God’s Kingdom, and that you will together seek ways to being about peace, hope, joy and freedom to your neighbours. What might your church do to sound the shofar and proclaim jubilee?
I wish you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, happy and healthy new year in 2020.
The programme at the October 2018 Synod overran slightly, and so I didn't share this reflection in the closing worship. This, then, is what I had intended to say, following a reading of Acts 2:37-47...
Who is your Number One?
I hope that I’m not the only one in the room who used to sit next to a transistor radio on Sunday evenings, with a very low-tech cassette recorder, listening to the chart show, trying to record my favourite songs, hoping against hope that the Tony Blackburn wouldn’t talk all over the intro. Just me?
Certainly for a generation, that anxious wait to hear who is at number 1 in the official charts was a not-to-be-missed weekly appointment.
Perhaps pop music wasn’t or isn’t your thing, but you take time to look at the list of best selling books in the weekend newspapers? Or you are glued to Eurovision, or the Oscars, or Strictly, always keen to know who is in the the number 1 spot?
Life moves on, and interests change. I don’t think I could name a single record in the Top 40 let along the Top 10 at the moment. But some things should not change. Our Number 1 should be the same. Our top priority should not waver with the passing of years.
When I challenged some Elders a couple of months ago to show leadership to the local church by giving real priority to being in church for worship on every occasion that they could possibly be there, it was suggested by one of those Elders that I wasn’t living in the real world.
Perhaps you might even share the view of that particular Elder, that spiritual leader of the local church. But let me say it again, because this is the truth. We should all be making attendance at worship an absolute priority and be there with other Christians to worship the Living God on every occasion that we can.
I do understand, because contrary to certain rumours I do live in the real world, that some people have work commitments that mean they can’t be in church every Sunday morning. I do understand, especially when family members don’t share your faith, that there are pressure points, and sometimes, the more powerful witness is to honour your family relationships rather than make them resent your desire to be in church. I do understand that your faith sometimes comes at a cost, and it was ever thus.
But point is not that we should make church number 1 in our life. The point is that God must be. God must be number 1 in our life.
I wasn’t preaching last Sunday, but in the church where I was I heard a sermon on the ten commandments, and was reminded how it was God who said that we must have no gods before Him. Who or what is the God or god who has your primary allegiance?
The important point about church is that is where we meet with other Christians, and hopefully some who are not-yet-but-on-their-way-to-being Christians. We meet with others to express our worship to God. We meet with others to learn more of God and God’s ways. We meet with others at church to share Christian fellowship one with another. And remember that Christian fellowship is much deeper than a cup of not-always-as-good-as-it-should-be tea or coffee. Christian fellowship is that time we spend with each other when we can care for one another, support one another, encourage one another, challenge one another, spur one another on towards greater Christian living.
So all of that means that church is the vehicle. It’s the means to the end of getting to know God better and preparing ourselves to live more Christ-like lives. Church matters, but God matters even more. Church is in our Top 10, but God must always be Number 1.
Those of us in leadership positions must particularly set a good example in how we prioritise our time. We need to give urgent attention to being excellent role models, and we can’t expect others to do things that we are not willing to attempt ourselves.
Oh, and here’s the rub. On the 1st of November I start a 3 month sabbatical leave. During that time I will be studying and writing on the subject of discipleship, and particularly in the area of how I believe that every disciple, as an essential and integral part of their deepening discipleship, should be growing as leaders. Some will go on to recognised ministries within our churches – Eldership, Church Related Community Work, the Ministry of Word & Sacraments, Lay Preaching, and so on. But I believe that everyone of us should be serving God through serving the church and serving our community. Leadership and servanthood are two sides of the same coin. By serving others we are giving leadership to the world and to the Church. Every one of us should be growing as disciples, every one of us should be serving God, and every one of us should therefore be growing as leaders. More of that on another occasion.
The point here is that I want you to understand what a high calling you each have. Everybody here and everybody in your local church has the same high calling to worship God, to enjoy God’s presence forever, and to share the Good News of Christ crucified and risen. Each of us is called to this ministry, this service, and so each of us need to set the kind of example that we would have others follow – and more importantly the kind of example that Christ set us and expects us to follow.
And that means that God must be number 1 in our lives, and that means being with others to keep God at number 1 in our lives.
We heard how in the early Church, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles…Day by day as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
As I finish, a question for your reflection: do you think it was coincidence that the people made God their number 1 and they made being with others for worship a high priority resulted in significant church growth?
As the writer to the Hebrews said, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (10:24f)
May God bless us in our relationships with Him and with each other as we keep Him at number 1. Amen.
I was at a meeting of the joint URC/Methodist Rural Strategy Group recently. The person chairing the meeting led the opening time of worship, using the daily prayer resource from www.sacredspace.ie The prayers asked to reflect on this: “Where do I sense hope, encouragement, and growth areas in my life? Be looking back over the last few months, I may be able to see which activities and occasions have produced rich fruit. If I do notice such areas, I will determine to give those areas both time and space in the future.”
Spend some time asking yourself and the Holy Spirit that question. What are the things that are giving you energy and helping you to grow in your relationship with God? Look back over the last few months and see what you have done that has produced “rich fruit”.
Did you find that difficult? Does that concern you? (If you did, it should!)
We cannot expect to only do those things that we find rewarding, that produce good fruit in our lives and those of others. But we should certainly be seeking out those things. But more importantly, we should make it a priority to take stock – to spend time prayerfully looking at your relationship with God.
I was also at the launch event for the Holy Habits resources (www.brfonline.org.uk/holy-habits) Andrew Roberts’ excellent book of that name is now supported by a set of study guides for personal and group use to support the United Reformed Church’s new focus on “Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today” – more information at www.urc.org.uk/our-work/walking-the-way.html
Somewhere along the way, the Church has lost sight of our call to be disciples and to make new disciples. It is time to correct that, and looking back at where we are growing in our own discipleship will help us to regain our focus for the future. There is an urgent need to getting back to the kind of discipleship to which we are called (see Matthew 28:16-20). I look forward to hearing stories of how individuals and congregations across the West Midlands take up this challenge.
...a very good place to start. Many of you will recognise those words from The Sound of Music. They start the song where Maria is teaching the children how to sing: A-B-C for learning to read, Do-Re-Mi for music. (Infer nothing about my musical preferences from this reference, but this is my first blog and I’ve got to start somewhere!)
I’ve been discussing with the Synod Officers ways in which improve communications between the office and local churches. Developing our online presence is one of those ways.
It need hardly be said, but I shall say it anyway, that our hope is that the communication develops in both directions. Our aim, as Synod staff, is to support the local church in developing their mission – to help you to do your things better. For us to achieve that aim, we need to hear clearly from you what support will help you.
But to drop back to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s theme – we need to start somewhere. Small steps will make a difference and open the door to larger, more confident and more effective steps.
It really is coincidence that I begin these blog postings at the start of January. I don’t “do” New Year’s Resolutions. If a change is worth making it is worth making anyway, not just because we turn a page on our calendars. It is not my intention at the outset to make regular or frequent postings, but I hope that I shall be able to use this particular forum to share some ideas, thoughts and reflections along the way.
As the United Reformed Church we are now moving into a new phase of life – Walking the Way: Living the Life of Jesus Today. You should have heard already that this is not a new programme or new initiative. It is the basis for which the Church will turn to what it should always have been doing but somewhere along the line we have tended to neglect. The URC will, under the Walking the Way banner refocus our energies on building up disciples of Jesus Christ and releasing them – us! – into mission. In other words, we are going back to the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16ff).
My prayer for us all is that together we will embrace this “re-boot of our DNA” as I’ve called it elsewhere.
May you know Christ more deeply and seek to serve Him and our neighbours this year.