A reflection by the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Methodist Conference, following the announcements of further lockdowns
Those who joined the President and Vice-President on Facebook Live this week would have heard Carolyn reflect on the poem by Minnie Haskins, often used at the beginning of the year and made famous in the 1939 Christmas Broadcast by HM King George VI: 'I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year'. As Carolyn encouraged us to do, we put our 'hand into the hand of God'.
It was only when I came to Harrow and began commuting to the office that I really noticed how dark the mornings are in January. It's a feature of the year that as the days get longer following the solstice it is in the evening that the effect first becomes noticeable. Although the sun does rise a little earlier each morning, it can feel as if it is actually getting darker. For many, going back into lockdown in England and the similar restrictions in Wales and Scotland will have a similar effect. We know that Spring is on its way, but our hope and joy have been tempered by the steep rise in the number of coronavirus infections and the warnings about the transmissibility of the new variant. We need to put our hand into the hand of God.
The calling of the Church is not simply to take God's hand but to enable all who would to take God's hand in times of darkness. It is that which makes the current situation so difficult. Decisions about whether churches should be open for collective worship and/or private prayer remain with the Managing Trustees; HM Government has not prohibited public worship in England though in Scotland, Wales and the islands different restrictions may apply. Church Councils therefore need to decide what they do for the best.
There are two considerations to be balanced. One is how we try to keep people safe or to put as few people as possible at risk of harm. That consideration applies both to those who would attend church and to those who facilitate that happening – the preacher or worship leader, the stewards, the caretaker, those who operate equipment or play the organ. The other is the missional imperative – how does the church best serve its members and the community in which it is set at this time?
Over the last nine months, we have developed skills that we did not know that we had and there is now a range of resources available for worship that does not require attendance in a building. There is much that we have missed when we have not been able to be together in one place, but there is much that we have gained through the reach of such platforms as Zoom, You Tube, and Facebook, as well as printed services hand-delivered and telephone gatherings. The Connexional Team continues to build up the resources and to share examples of good practice.
So Church Councils have hard choices before them. I expect that in many places the decision will be made not to remain open for worship and for them, sad though it is, that will be the right decision. There might be some activities that are offered in the community (eg, a foodbank) which remain open even whilst the chapel is shut for worship and, again, odd though it might seem, that might well be the right decision. The Connexional Team has advice for the safe continuation of those services. In some places, the decision will be made to explore new avenues of service and ministers and others will be talking to the local community about whether and how the church can help people in these difficult days. I suspect also that some places will choose to continue to be open for worship, but only after rigorous risk assessments and safety checks and with the assurance that no-one should feel obliged to enable services or to attend if they do not feel it an appropriate risk to take.
The day before the second lockdown began I stood at a graveside and read Psalm 23. 'Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, because you are with me.' The good news remains the good news – God is with us. Many have been through the dark valley of grief or have been close to death and that will be the experience of many more in this lockdown; many have been through the dark valley of uncertainty about their employment, their finances, or their future educational opportunities, and that will be the experience of many more in this lockdown. Our calling is to enable those people to know that God is with them; it will be hard, but paradoxically the better way to do that could be without being able to meet in church. We continue to do things differently alongside those who need to be helped to know God who is there in the darkness and longs to take their hand.
So, please pray for all who have difficult decisions to make this week and for all who in any way will minister to others through this pandemic, because their ministry will put hands into the hand of God.
The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Methodist Conference.