To Return or Not to Return?
Alongside the successful roll out of the Covid vaccination programme comes the increasing hope of the return to normal life. It has been a long and unprecedented interruption for every organisation, every business, every charity, with losses to be counted in personal, social and economic terms. For many churchgoers the hope is now of a welcome resumption of services and the many aspects of church life.
Cathedrals are gearing up to welcome visitors once more, with the demise of tourist income costing up to millions of pounds in lost revenue. There are many small and already struggling congregations which may face closure. The pandemic may well have hastened those rationalisation plans which some dioceses in the Church of England have been forced to embark upon, as the downturn of finances forces a reduction in clergy and an amalgamation of parishes.
Meanwhile during the pandemic and its effect of impoverishing many families and of accentuating loneliness and isolation, many churches have done heroic work in hosting foodbanks, organising doorstep visits and continuing to serve their communities as best they could.
The government talks of ‘building back better’, of lessons learnt through this awful time so that never again will our country be so susceptible in the face of such global threats. But what of churches? Do they need to ‘build back better? Quite understandably the emphasis has been on ‘resuming business as normal’, (the recent words of the Dean of Exeter), to seeing folk back in the pews, to coffee and chat after the service. There is a sense of wanting to reconnect with friends and with the place of the church in the community as it marks the seasons and opens its doors for quiet prayer, for pilgrimage, for those school visits and often as a concert venue.
But is it all so obvious and straightforward as this? Will the churches simply open their doors, resume services and expect that all will indeed be back to normal? Or will there be a need to ‘build back better’ and what might this mean both in the minds of clergy and congregations?
PCN Britain currently numbers over 700 members and recently they were asked to share their experiences of church and their intentions about resuming church attendance. Some interesting and challenging responses came in.
There was for many respondents the anticipated pleasure of seeing friends again in person, of collective worship in its fullest expression and the resumption of choirs, children’s and youth groups, and all the activities which deepen that sense of belonging and purpose. But that was by no means either universal or untempered with qualification.
For some of our members, the pandemic has affected how they see their churchgoing future. First, with the ever growing familiarity with Zoom and online technology many folk have ‘attended‘ churches as far away as Canada or Australia. New forms of worship, often much more progressive and thoughtful, with new songs and fresh theological reflections, have been part of the Sunday experience.
Secondly, for others Sundays have become times to go for long walks, to discover more about their local area, enjoying its natural beauty or intriguing urban landscape. An hour in church had been replaced with hours communing with the world around.
Thirdly for some it has been about redesigning family time. Some children might prefer the other Sunday activities which have taken over, rather than a return to church.
Fourthly, and more significantly perhaps in the responses from PCN members, is how an enforcing pandemic in creating an unlooked -for ‘sabbatical’ away from church, has opened the eyes of some to feel more uncomfortable to a return to ‘enforcing religion’.
Here are some examples of how ‘business as usual’ is not on the hearts of some members of PCN :
“I just didn’t want to go back to the same small church, the same faces doing the same jobs in the church, but as I am the senior church steward ( Methodist Church) I was going to have to carry on for the time being…. I have definitely got more from the lockdown circuit Zoom services and the feeling of belonging more to a larger, dispersed community which makes less demands, but still offers a sense of identity”.
I also think I would like to “ spread myself “ round other places of worship , instead of feeling I have to be there every week in the little parochial ( literally and figuratively) community . Lockdown has been a good thing for me in my own spiritual journey - and I hope I have the courage to take the next steps and find a more meaningful way to follow the teachings of Jesus” (Fiona)
Another member writes:
The pandemic has led me to fully explore how I best meet my spiritual needs, and that means a reduced affinity with my local Church. My local Church still has a role for me in terms of community and service, but the reality is that it meets my spiritual needs less, and the pandemic has allowed me to explore other ways I can do that. This has been
gradually happening over several years now, it's just been accelerated this past year.
What I have done this past year is lots of activities with Green Christian and they have been a huge support with their great Radical Presence and Deep Waters courses (8 zoom meeting each). I've also discovered the Hopeful Activist Podcast from the Praxis Centre, the
Nomad Podcast, and the Lectio 365 app for daily prayer (and these in addition to the Mid-Faith Crisis Podcast which is the best!).
The issue now is how I gradually reduce my presence at my local Church. I still care for them greatly, but I have not been to a Church service for a year, and I don't attend my parish Church online offering. (Neil)
I have been a member of the Church of England all my life, and a few years ago I was licensed as a Reader.
However, for many years now, I have been in what Brian McLaren would call Stage 3 (of faith): Perplexity. There are certain aspects of widely-accepted Christian faith I cannot wholeheartedly subscribe to, substitutionary atonement being a major one. In addition, our liturgy is fairly rigid and I find services have become formulaic.
I suppose I have stayed a member of the church for as long as I have, primarily out of loyalty to the choir, and to the church community, which I enjoy belonging to. My husband is also still a loyal and active church member. But I am finding increasingly that the church feels like a skin which no longer fits me. During the lockdowns, we have had services on Zoom, which I have found more palatable, as I can comment on the sermons as they happen, and not say the words I am not happy with. But now our 'live' services have started again and I have pretty much made the momentous (for me) decision not to go back. I don't want to join another church, certainly not at the moment, and there is no 'Stage 4' faith group locally that I know of, so I am hoping that I can connect with others in a similar place online via PCN. (I have withheld the name of this member on her request)
I found myself increasingly coming home ( from church) feeling angry about the theology presented in hymns, choruses, sermons and liturgy without a meaningful way to discuss that so I gradually stopped going. I couldn’t expect other members of the congregation to ask my questions though got frustrated that they didn’t see it would take more than messy church to address the decline in attendance……..I don’t know what the future holds there. I stopped going anywhere over time, partly because of work and family pressures. Since becoming a carer it is much less stressful to stay home. I do miss community contact but PCN and choir provides that.
From members of our Newcastle group:
Member one : Regarding church life I don't really want to attend a typical church ever. I'm sermoned out, have sat far too long under mediocre preaching to ever want to return and have found a relaxing home with the Quakers! There is community, silence and sharing, acceptance and the ability to "agree to disagree" firmly embedded in their ethos!! At this juncture I'm revisiting lots of once held pre-conceived ideas and beginning to feel liberated, as one by one they are dispatched to the ether!
Member two: I haven't actually left my Anglican church, but I am not happy with the current theology there which appears to be a belief in in a supernatural god and a belief that the Bible should be taken literally. If I go back, it will be because I'm extremely fond of many of the people in the congregation.
However a balanced picture needs to be painted with responses from PCN members who do want to return to their churches:
Andrew writes : In the past year I have had opportunity to practice what I believe by being heavily involved, on our local church’s behalf, in the community response to Covid. This is what I believe active, lived Christianity means. I believe, and hope, that this work and that of all the other church members who have been involved in our town will have reinforced the idea that Christianity can be a lived path of practical compassion, not just one of belief in incredible things. Our church community itself has kept going through Zoom and we have become good at that, whilst acknowledging that many can’t participate in this way. We have strengthened outreach using phone calls instead of visits.
And Paul : Gradually we became more involved in the life of the church and its outreach. Gradually, and more recently the theology has seemed less satisfying to us and discovering PCN has brought new light into spiritual life.
My Easter reading has been Brian McClaren’s new book ‘Faith after Doubt, and his explanation of moving through various stages of spiritual growth and the acceptability of doubt as being OK has been most helpful. Tasting his Stage 4 (Harmony) brings deep satisfaction.
My family and I have been most fortunate during the Pandemic. For a short period we were able to attend our church – Two meters apart and humming through masks! One missed proper smiles and singing but the warmth of the Spirit was still there. During Lockdown I missed this. – Zoom is not the same.
Our church will open again at Pentecost and we will be glad to be there once more. During Lockdown we have missed the loving friendship and the unity that the Spirit gives, and this is far more important in spreading a kingdom of love than arguments about differing theologies.
Michael wrote to say: As church attendance has become for me mainly a social occasion - a very important one -, I decided not to get involved in the on-line events, nor do I intend to go to services until all the artificial constraints are removed. I am anyway not a great screen watcher.
And Geoffrey : I can't wait to get back to church. I flounder with I.T. and don't do Zoom. My local church has taken the sanitising and distancing measures most seriously.
Alan raises an interesting point: Despite all the problems that many of us have with the church, one has to ask where would we be without. PCN almost certainly only exists because the church has kept the message of Jesus going for two thousand years. Going forward, I think that most of us would find it harder to follow that message outside of a community. PCN in the longer term might create such a community, but then would it not be a church in all but name?
PCN Britain is indeed a very ‘broad church’. Most of our members stlll have some connections to a place of worship, some are definitely post-church. We are at one in seeking more open hearted, open minded Christian communities which dare to address the big questions of faith and doubt. Here then are some concluding thoughts as to how this dreadful pandemic period might be a stimulus to ‘build back better’.
1. All of us, clergy and laity have had more space to reflect upon our churches at a time of lockdown. What have we missed and what have we not missed?
2. Many of us have been part of an on line church community through Zoom or watching a YouTube service. What has been new and encouraging about this? Are there new liturgies, new songs, new prayers, new forms of meditation which we have come across?
3. How can we share these online experiences with others when we return to our churches?
4. If we felt ‘sermoned out’ or disagreed with some of the theology of our church before the pandemic, can we feel a fresh impetus to raise these issues with our church leaders? Can we suggest new initiatives such as a question time about the sermon over coffee? Can we try out new and more progressive sings and hymns?
5. Might there be opportunities to continue to connect with others on line, via Zoom alongside our return to church? Might this provide a more progressive platform to attract new people?
6. If we have been doing some theological reading during these long lockdown months, is there a chance to share this with others in our church community? A new book group?
There is nothing good about a pandemic which has claimed the lives of so many of our fellow citizens but if a return to church means having a fresh look at all we do, think, say and sing, we might at least try to emerge from this dark period with some fresh and bold insights to share.