There will be no public Church of England services in the Shaftesbury area for the foreseeable future. Rev Dr Helen Dawes says alternative solutions are being investigated and she explained how the ruling will apply to funeral services.
The threat of the coronavirus is changing life in Shaftesbury and the surrounding villages. As team rector Helen says, she’s never experienced anything like this. “It’s really strange. I don’t think I could ever have imagined, more than a few days ago, that there would be a time when we would suspend public worship in the Church of England. I have been ordained for nearly eighteen years. Just earlier I was talking to one of our retired clergy who has been ordained fifty years and he could not have imagined that this would ever happen.”
A church is not necessarily a physical building, but worship does require people coming together for a shared experience. Helen knows that this decision will upset many parishioners. “This is going to be really difficult. Churches are always a community of people that meets in the building and we call the building church because that’s where the church meets,” said Helen. “Being part of a community that lives out our faith is really central to what it means to be a Christian. It’s going to be a challenge for us to work out how we support one another in the weeks ahead.”
“One of the things that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said when they issued this guidance to suspend public worship is that we should still be the church, but we’re going to have to find a different way of doing it,” she added.
Rev Richard Warhurst is the rector of six villages across the Wiltshire border. He looks after the CofE churches in The Donheads, Semley, Sedgehill and East Knoyle – the benefice of St Bartholomew. He says the same ruling applies there.
Helen accepts that finding a solution which doesn’t involve a physical get-together will be ‘trial and error’. “It might be that we are able to live stream the weekly service on a Sunday. We will be using our Facebook page through our team of churches to keep in touch with people. We are also looking at how we can increase our contact by email or sending out reflections in hardcopy for people who are not on the internet.”
Helen is aware that the web can fulfil a useful function at times like this. “Someone I know who lives in the North of England, who had been self-isolating because of coronavirus symptoms, was able to follow a service at the church that she used to belong to in Cambridgeshire on Sunday morning. She commented on social media how nice it was to see people that she recognised worshipping and be part of that community from a distance. There are going to be a lot of us trying to think about how we can enable the local service to be possible in a time like this,” said Helen.
She says it will be a challenge to find a solution that works for people who don’t use the net and computers because they could become more cut-off. “I think the telephone is going to be really important. We will be trying to get together contact details for the people who would normally be at church, who are not on email or the internet, and who are going to be isolated at home. Our usual pastoral volunteers, retired clergy and lay pastoral assistants will be joining in so we can have conversations and check that people are okay and know that they are not forgotten,” said Helen.
Some parishioners could be concerned about funeral arrangements. “The guidance we’ve been given from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York about suspending services applies to all our regular services but so far we haven’t got anything that says what we must do about funerals,” said Helen. “For the time being, we understand that we can continue to take funerals as usual. People have the option of a funeral service happening entirely outside, at the graveside. It might enable people to have a proper funeral service without being worried about being indoors with a group of people. We are continuing to take funerals at the moment.”