Church after COVID

Summer Kids Club at St. Luke’s, Clovelly, on January 15

By Robyn Douglass
Correspondent

The Anglican Church of Australia announced Feb. 26 that it has postponed its General Synod until sometime in 2022, another loss to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The national meeting, which had been scheduled for 2020, was planned for May. But the standing committee, in light of “continuing uncertainty around travel and gatherings,” resolved to postpone the next session until a date to be determined.

The Most Rev. Geoffrey Smith said in a letter to Australia’s 23 dioceses that snap lockdowns and border closures were likely to continue for some time. The possibility of some members attending online was not considered appropriate for the important triennial gathering.

Archbishop Smith expressed his “thanks to God for the way Australia has fared through this time.” And indeed, there have been blessings amid the gloom and Zoom.

Australia began rolling out COVID vaccinations on February 21, weeks behind the rest of the world. But in some respects, the nation is ahead. With some luck, not least our living on an island, the COVID toll has been kept low: nearly 29,000 cases and 909 deaths (in a population of 25 million). Life is pretty normal.

Shrove Tuesday pancakes in Perth

After a 10-week national lockdown from March to May last year, everyone arriving in Australia from anywhere has been placed in a capital city hotel for two weeks of quarantine. The occasional virus outbreaks Australia has experienced, the worst in Victoria in July, have all come from flaws in these arrangements.

But now we know the drill — as soon as one or two cases break out, the entire city, or state, goes into a lockdown of about five days to allow mass testing and contact tracers to quarantine vulnerable people.

In Melbourne, where the 16-week lockdown was the longest in the country, the Rev. Canon Dr. Colleen O’Reilly wrote a report after surveying diocesan clergy who led virtual church services.

The question of online attendance is ambiguous, she warned. It raises the issue of how much people are actually attending and engaging with service. “Or, more optimistically, have more people now engaged with church than for longer than we remember?” O’Reilly said.

She said the best news was from priests who found creative ways to maintain contact. One priest left seasonal service booklets in letterboxes for people to read on service days and invited households with children to create posters that were displayed in the church. One parish sent extensive notes on the Sunday lectionary readings for people to learn more about the Scriptures during lockdown.

“Nearly everyone wrote about wanting to maintain connections,” O’Brien said. “Most did this predominantly through the liturgy, but when this was not possible parishes placed an emphasis on pastoral care, keeping in touch with people and keeping an eye on the most vulnerable.”

Worship resumed in most churches about the middle of last year, but it’s still not quite the same. We have no idea how long these rules will apply. The Diocese of Melbourne has been seeking ideas for a celebration when the pandemic is vanquished.

COVID rules are set by state governments, so dioceses set the rules according to what their state permits. This is what our churches look like now.

One Door, Please: You don’t have to wear a mask in most places, but you are likely to enter by one door so you can scan a QR code with your smartphone (or sign a logbook if you don’t have a smartphone). The records are kept by the state governments for weeks to allow for extensive tracing if a case breaks out.

Most churches have a COVID officer or marshal — lay people who have been trained and accredited to keep records and check that people are following the rules, and clean thoroughly after any gathering. They are greeters with real heft.

You are unlikely to receive a prayer book, hymnal, or Bible on entry — shared objects, including cushions, are still banned in some places. Individual pew sheets or overhead projections are preferred. Some parishes no longer pass around an offertory basket — donations have turned much more generally online — which may affect church finances.

Church workers, including clergy, have been eligible for the national government’s JobKeeper allowance, which tops up wages when a company’s income is severely affected by COVID shutdowns. This payment stops in March, which may leave some parishes struggling.

Smaller Crowd: So far, church attendance counts remain down, around 20 percent less than they were before the pandemic. But it’s too soon to tell if that is permanent. The Australian church’s dominant age profile — vulnerable elderly — has meant that many people still don’t feel confident to come out. Many parishes keep posting sermons and whole services on Zoom, something they would not have bothered with a year ago.

Other parishes have taken seriously the introspection prompted by lockdowns to devise some thoughtful ways of meeting and talking about life issues.

The new young adult service at St Luke’s Church, Clovelly

Spaced Out: All public gatherings are subject to space regulations — a maximum number of people according to the size of the building. People are advised to maintain personal space of four to six feet between non-family, so in many churches, every second pew is roped off.

There are attendance limits for weddings and funerals, provided personal space can be maintained. In Sydney, for example, it’s 300; in Brisbane, 200; in Perth, 500.

Singing: Some dioceses still ban congregational singing, and choirs or song leaders must stand six feet from each other. For some worshipers, not being allowed to sing favorite hymns is hard. Others have relished the experience of listening.

Peace, Not a Contact Sport: The greeting of the peace is no longer a handshake, let alone an all-in parish hug session. It is a more sober, quiet greeting. Personal distance being maintained meant Ash Wednesday was very different when parishioners self-imposed ashes on their foreheads.

Holy Communion: This has been one of the more marked changes. Communion is no longer offered in two kinds — parishioners only receive the bread and the priest alone consumes the wine. When wine is distributed, it must be in individual cups. When people receive a blessing, the priest is not permitted to touch them.

Gathering After the Service: It’s still a lonely time for those who love morning tea, chatting after the service or social events. In the Diocese of Sydney, mingling after worship has been specifically ruled out. Home groups are permitted, with limits on group numbers.

Food can only be served according to strict guidelines, so there are no shared meals or buffet spreads. Individually wrapped cookies are a wise precaution, but they usually leave a lot of plastic waste.

It will take some time before fundraising and social events go on as before.

The Future: Will it be a return to the past as we experienced? Or have churches learned valuable lessons from the COVID-enforced time in the wilderness?

The Rt. Rev. Brad Billings, Assistant Bishop of Melbourne, reminds us in a paper published on the diocesan website that the early church had no buildings either. As much as we long to gather in them, he says, the biblical vision of the universal Church transcends time and space.

For now, it’s a waiting game.