During this latest lockdown faith groups in England and Wales have had the freedom to decide whether to hold in-person meetings for public worship.
Some churches have chosen not to do so, having considered the implications for their congregation and community. Their view is that because the infection rate is very high in their area, or because of a perceived danger to their congregation, or a concern for the church’s reputation, that the negatives outweigh the benefits.
Others, of course, are unable to meet because they hire premises that are unavailable to them at the moment.
Time to reconsider?
The indications are that restrictions on other forms of public meeting will remain in force for some time, so churches will continue for the foreseeable future to make decisions on their meetings without a clear change in wider policy.
As infection rates are much lower now in all areas, and the chances of serious illness from infection are reduced as the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, I would encourage church leaders to consider again whether this is a good time to re-open their buildings for in-person services and to give church members the opportunity (if they wish) to enjoy one of the great privileges of being part of a local fellowship.
We have permission to meet but, it could be asked, why should we want to take this opportunity when so much is abnormal – limited numbers, social distancing and no singing for example? And there are, of course, risks as well.
Factors to weigh up
Here are some of the factors my own local church considered in deciding to re-open, which might be helpful in for others as they weigh up this issue:
Freedom: In God’s providence the government and scientists have judged that it is reasonable for churches in England and Wales to continue to meet if they are able to implement hygiene and social-distancing measures. To close our meetings while the authorities say that we are free to meet, especially now that infection rates are reducing, sends a very odd signal about our priorities; it would also deprive a significant proportion of our congregations who are eager to meet, and leaves open the question about how long we remain closed and on what basis – especially as some restrictions are rumoured to remain in place right into the summer and possibly beyond.
Fellowship: This is an opportunity to be physically present with our brothers and sisters, albeit at a distance as we queue, walk in, sit apart and listen to God’s word in the presence of each other. For some this is their only in-person social contact of the week and is hugely significant. We should not underestimate the importance of physical church services, just as we recognise the value of family gatherings in person over virtual meetings.
We should not underestimate the importance of physical church services
Engagement: Gathering in person allows a fuller experience of seeing each other, the service leaders and preacher. This helps us to better enter into the service in a way that is so much more engaging than the two-dimensional experience of watching on a screen where there are more opportunities for distraction and loss of concentration.
Witness: Some have suggested it is ‘bad witness’ to be seen going to our meetings when others are making sacrifices for the sake of others. On the contrary, by being known and seen as giving a priority to gathering, we are testifying to the importance of the meetings of the Church. It is a privilege, in God’s grace, that we have this freedom and I suggest that we should use it.
Because of the precautions taken by churches – the pre-screening of attendees, their limited contact in time and proximity, the hygiene provisions and the responsible behaviour of all involved, our congregations do not represent a significant risk compared to, for example, a weekly visit to the shops. This is borne out by the evidence since opening up last summer that churches are not spreading infection. We are not being reckless by remaining open. Clearly, the lowest risk option for churches would be to remain online only until some point when the risks become negligible. But I suggest that this is not a helpful way to model how to live as responsible Christians, taking reasonable risks as we trust the providence of God.
Encouragement: Our meetings provide an anticipation of what we will experience when lockdown restrictions are fully lifted. This is an encouragement to those in the meeting and to those who, for the time being, cannot meet but can at least witness the congregation meeting as they watch the livestream.
Graham Nicholls is director of Affinity
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