During my 45 years in ministry, and until last March, I have never had to stop Sunday services due to a pandemic. We had skipped a Sunday, or two, because of the weather (we are in Canada, you know!), but not for more than 100 days.
When we were at Phase 2 of businesses re-launching in Alberta, we started planning for the church re-opening. Our Peoples’ Warden, Pat Francis, organised our cleaning crew and the purchase of protective equipment and sanitizing supplies. When Phase 3 was announced, we were ready.
Part of our plan (submitted to and approved by Bishop Jane) for reopening and keeping our people safe included a new look for the way we serve eucharist; a big thank you goes to McDonald’s for providing hundreds of condiment cups for our Holy Communion services!
During the time of the lockdown, many of our congregation’s members were unable to access spiritual guidance and worship for lack of computer skills or the right gadgets. Their main method of communication is by phone. For the few that can access Facebook, I offered special prayers every Sunday. It was heart-warming to know my messages were still reaching some parishioners of present and past churches I had served and the general public.
Still, when our reopening was announced, people were ready and eager for Sunday worship. There are no surprises when you live in a rural town, people likely knew about the re-opening before I did!
At 9:30 am, on June 21, St. Philip’s church bell rang loud and clear. People arrived and followed the COVID-19 protocol to keep safe. We had marked pews in order to keep the safe distances. As per the government and diocesan guidelines, there was no singing. But, thankfully, we were able to play a CD of organ music from the All Saints’ Cathedral. Thanks to Jeremy (Spurgeon)! We practiced the new form of communicating the eucharistic elements; putting on gloves and a mask to prepare the elements was a strange feeling. We flashed peace signs at each other during the Peace. We all missed the handshakes and hugs. Safe practices are the way to express our Christian faith of loving and caring for each other!
It felt strange in the beginning, but we kept adjusting and improving each time we held a service. As the saying goes, ‘you do it 3 times and it becomes a tradition!’ The first Sunday, only half of our usual congregation attended. By the middle of July, the church attendance had risen to more than 90 per cent. Not all of our parishioners have been able to return to church. The local seniors’ lodges are still under lockdown conditions. Even with limited space in our tiny church, we were able to accommodate everyone while still keeping the two-metre physical distancing spacing.
There was a noticeable absence of lively chatter among people before and after church. I am sad to say that COVID-19 has taken a lot of joy out of people. Yet, the whole experience of being able to worship together again gives us hope. Come what may, we will be here ’til God’s reign arrives!