Letter to Rowbarton congregation

Saturday 12th September 2020

Do you remember the story that John gives us right at the end of his gospel – chapter 21 – where the risen Jesus appears to some of his disciples early in the morning by the Sea of Galilee?

The disciples were traumatised by Jesus’ death, confused by the resurrection, fearful of the authorities, and were in a bit of a no-man’s land, a bit of a ‘what next?’ time.  They decided at Peter’s suggestion to ‘resume fishing in Galilee’.

Perhaps we can draw parallels between them, and our situation just now.

Talking to people, I hear that although some have coped quite well, even thrived, through the last months, discovering a new creativity or a contentment in solitude, others have been left disoriented, confused, and fearful.  And now, as different parts of society are gradually opening up again, most of us are wondering ‘what next?’

From our Bibles, we know that the disciples after Jesus’ ascension experienced a time of struggle, difficulties in adjusting their mindsets from their Jewish heritage to a new interpretation of their faith (remember the debates about food laws and circumcision), but at the same time they found new gifts of preaching, teaching and healing, as they gradually grew in their confidence and in the Spirit’s power.

And I hope that we too have learned new things about God and about ourselves over the last months, and we now have an opportunity to interpret those new insights we have gleaned for a new future, and to discern God’s new mission for us - as individuals and as a church.

Churches - places of sanctuary - being closed, is unprecedented in our memories; even during the war churches were predictable places of refuge, prayer, and peace.  Many people have missed their safe availability – not only our congregations, but perhaps more so, our communities.  A closed church – much as we understand the reasons – gives an unsettling message.

We are now being given permission, carefully, to consider whether we are able to open our buildings, and how that might be possible.

For some, this will provide a message of hope and optimism, others will feel apprehensive, even afraid.  It goes without saying that we recognise there is a variety of feeling amongst the congregation: anticipation, ambivalence – (‘I’ve been quite all right, I don’t need to come back to church’), nervousness, fear (‘will it be safe?  I’ve lost the confidence to go out’). 

There will be some in our congregation who shouldn’t consider returning just yet.  And I would like to say very clearly to those who have been carefully shielding and who are most vulnerable – there is absolutely no pressure or expectation that you will come back until you feel completely confident and ready to do so.

Church life as we know and recognise it will be different for a long time - we cannot predict how things are going to unfold.  Things may improve, they may deteriorate.  We cannot say with confidence ‘I will come back in the Spring – things will be more settled then’.  They might be, they may not.  We are in this for the long haul – or at least until the scientists have found a vaccine.

It is the responsibility of each Church Council to determine, with the minister of the church if, when, and how, a church might open.  On 4th August, Rowbarton’s Church Council met (virtually) to consider some work and suggestions which had been brought as a result of an earlier leadership meeting.

The guidance from The Methodist Church has been carefully read, considered, and interpreted for our building, and Risk Assessments drawn up.  Having studied the proposals, the decision of the Church Council (12 in favour, 5 abstentions), was to open the building in a phased way for worship, and for some activities from the first Sunday in September. 

The timing of these activities will be important, because we shall need to leave 72 hours between events in order to cut down on the need to deep clean after each activity.  In view of this, we hope that Wednesday afternoon Guild can commence, beginning on 9th September, and the social group which normally meets on the 3rd Thursday of the month, will be able to restart on 16th September.  (Again, there is no pressure or expectation to attend these groups, and only those who feel happy and confident should do so.)

I would like to express our deep gratitude to Chris Pinguenet and Richard Sillett for drawing up the risk assessments, and to Chris’ family, Joanne, Luke and Owen, for the practical adjustments they have made within the building, which include clearing spaces, putting up signs, sanitisers, and generally thinking through the 101 things that we need to prepare for safe opening.  The photograph below shows you the Sanctuary, with chairs spaced 2 metres apart and with pairs of chairs along each side for families.  Spaced in this way, we are able to accommodate 23 worshippers, plus stewards, plus preacher.

There will be further updates over the next weeks, and we will let you know how we will deal with the practical details of ‘booking’ a place, what to expect when we arrive at the building, and what we might expect worship to be like.   There will be plenty of time for questions and conversations, and please do feel free to phone me and have a chat at any point if you wish.

In the meantime … be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Phone or meet, if you are able, with your family and friends.  Read a good book.  Smile often.  Pray for one another.

Knowing you are with us in the ebbs and flows of our everyday lives,
your Spirit’s presence within our hearts,
your gentle whisper guiding our steps,
your warm embrace when times are hard,
your hands held out each time we fall.
Knowing you are with us in our everyday lives
is blessing enough for today.

With love and prayers for you all