A Year On in Lockdown Ministry

Covid Anniversary Blog

A year of ministry in lockdown brings with it a conflicting mixture of befuddlement, anger and hope.

The anger comes from standing alongside many families in their bereavement with so few people allowed in our buildings; thirty in Church, and ten or twenty at Crematoria. No hymn singing allowed even in a brief respite near Christmas, when we managed about 4 Sunday services in Church rather than on zoom, including two muted Holy Communion services, giving only bread.

When I stop and think that bereavement pain has been repeated well over 120,000 times since this virus took hold I am angry. Standing outside the places of committal many large families wept with frustration and on a number of occasions hugged one another out of desperation when I stood by masked and sensibly isolating. Although it was impossible to save everyone, I wonder if the interface between science and politics might have been better handled?

Although I have deeply missed singing with others there have been a few things that have lifted me. Over Christmas we decided to do socially distanced outdoor carolling by some of the houses of our most vulnerable members. We were so inspired to see many front doors opening with many local people joining in. It was truly heart-warming and a real tonic in the middle of Winter.

Not being able to have hymns or sing,  families have been given the opportunity to pick songs they like or their deceased relative’s favourites. Many people who died were my age or younger so I have had many memories relit by listening to old favourites including Whitney Houston, Elvis, Tom Jones, the Dubliners, the Beatles and Jerry and the Pacemakers.

But what has struck me most is that people have been really sensitive to their own and other people’s feelings and the music has touched us all deeply. Things like ‘Have I told you Lately that I love you’ and ‘Goodbye is the Saddest word’ have revealed the pain and wishes of people who are universally grateful that we are focussed on their needs and feelings and not imposing hymns and songs they don’t know.

My hope is that we have got nearer to the beating heart of our communities in new and meaningful ways. As well as funerals and other contacts made during lockdown we have been privileged to share food parcels, Christmas Hampers, and half term meals for families through our work with One Knowsley and Knowsley Kitchen. Realising the poverty and need in our areas brings again a mixture of anger and hope. We easily become isolated from other people’s pain when we just try to manage our own; we all need to look outwards for change and make it happen.

Rev John S Davis Assistant Priest, St. Gabriel’s Church, Huyton, Deanery Missioner and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 30th April 2020 by John which can be found here.

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‘Catholicism at a Crossroads’: Technology in Times of Crisis in Modern Ireland

Since the mid-90s secularisation in Ireland has been discernible, with sharp declines in mass attendance, vocations, regular family prayer and Catholic sacramental engagement. This period dovetails with allegations of sexual abuse amongst the clergy, and the mistreatment of unmarried mothers (Fallen Women) in religious-run institutions (Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes). It also coincided with increased urbanization arising from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (1995-2008).

Technological Adoption, Disconnection and Belonging

Today, regular mass attendance is low among children, youth and middle-aged persons. However, pre-Covid funeral attendance was generally high, partially due to close-knit rural relationships. Churches responded to the Covid crisis by increased technological adoption including ‘mass on demand’ and live ceremonies. This opens churches up to new, international audiences, who increasingly desire flexible engagement through hand-held technologies. However, a revenue crisis prevails due to falling church donations and mental health issues are growing among the general population. Clergy who regularly say mass without congregations also report feelings of disconnection from their communities.

The expansion of online provision offers scope for people who desire some emotional connections. However, when Covid ends in the longer term this could exacerbate decreases in regular mass-going, thereby deepening secularisation and sporadic engagement. Restrictions on mass attendance and prayer meetings in private houses impact markedly on rural, elderly dwellers that frequently rely on these events for friendships and social contact.

A More (Technologically) Engaged Church: Flexibility, New Routines and Communication

After the pandemic, the church is likely to be more technologically responsive than any time in its history. However, how it communicates with parishioners and the social legitimacy accorded to its message is also likely to be influenced by other events, including the church’s response to survivors of Mother and Baby Homes and similar institutions. As we write this commentary, international news is dominated by coverage of the Irish state’s apology to survivors of these institutions and the percentage the church will pay to victims in future redress schemes. The schism between several sectors of the Irish population and the church is indeed, deep and the church’s response and how it communicates (virtually and face-to-face) is now more important than ever for its survival.

It is also likely that some congregations who attended face-to-face services pre-Covid will continue to use internet technologies to access ceremonies, moving away from face-to-face engagement, partially due to new routines and flexibility. However, the findings of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation are likely to influence church attendance (both online and face-to-face) for some time to come.

Of course, Covid-19 might also bolster attendance, at least to some degree. As the crisis lingers, people’s desires for belonging and connection grow stronger and the spaces that individuals engage with after Covid are likely to be more diverse than in pre-Covid times. However, other long-term implications for the church with regards to revenue-generation, mental health and the sustainability of church-based family support services that are largely reliant on public donations, are yet to be realised.

The impact of Covid-19 on secularisation, emotional wellbeing of parishioners and clergy, communication and the social legitimacy of the Church post-Covid, it likely to be transformative. How and in what ways, remains to be seen.

Dr Joan Cronin is Course Co-ordinator and part-time Lecturer at the Centre of Continuing Adult Education, University College, Cork, Ireland.

Dr Lisa Moran is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University.

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Ministry without the Ministered: Reflections from a Vicar in Lockdown

As a Church of England Vicar, like other professionals called to work in local community the idea of this lockdown has been a tremendous shock. I am learning to cope (but not very well!). Ministers of the Gospel are called to preach, teach and minister God’s love in community; isolation is a very painful and difficult antithesis to that.

The lockdown challenges the Church and all of us in a number of ways:

Firstly, the physical isolation from people whom we love in our wider family and friends including members of our flock. For someone like me – who has been suspicious of social media, fearing that people forget what real friendship is, a new movement has arisen to inform people of what we are offering using Facebook and Twitter, Zoom and other social media platforms on PCs, phones and tablets. I created my first ever video sermon last week. In common with all public speakers (including stand-up comedians!) we know that preaching is about reacting to the people who are ‘present’ as well as just sharing your pre-prepared thoughts. Reaction is stifled as I always look to discern the Holy Spirit at work within each individual.

Secondly, with strict rules in place, most people have cancelled their weddings due to numbers being limited to 5. Church funerals are no longer permitted; each ceremony in cemetery chapels and crematoria limit mourner numbers to around 10 with the option of live streaming services for family and friends who are blessed with access to IT. We have recently lost two members of our congregation; there will certainly need to be a number of memorial services after lockdown as people are feeling extremely cheated from expressing their grief. The pain of not being able to properly mourn or celebrate their contribution to the community is palpable.

As well as concern for relationships distanced, bereavement and sacramental isolation there are also severe financial implications for churches and Dioceses. As with other charities and businesses the Church is losing fees, charges and collections along with other forms of financial and volunteer support. For many organisations, large or small, this will be critical.

However,  the major questions for us all are theological and social. I do want to ask what sort of society we want to be in the future, when we seek to bring justice for all which is at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps appreciating each other more, looking out for the poor, elderly and vulnerable, keeping fit, learning how to cook healthily, polluting the planet less and taking the NHS and other public and shared services much more seriously.

Whilst experiencing this lock down we can all reflect on the kind of society we want to build; perhaps now appreciating things we had forgotten. As a person of faith I want to challenge us all to look forward with hope to build a better, more inclusive and safer future for everyone in our world. Love, justice and peace must be paramount.

Rev John Davis of ‘Together Liverpool’ and the Church Urban Fund is an ISR Visiting Fellow.


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