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Can the Church of England survive Covid?

Can the Church of England survive Covid?

By Harry Mount
The Telegraph
6 January 2021

In the first week of the first lockdown, as the Church of England shut its doors, the Reverend Pat Allerton, vicar of St Peter's, in London's Notting Hill, had a brainwave. The Old Etonian, nicknamed the Hot Priest and the Walking Priest, says, 'I had an idea to take a hymn and a prayer to the streets of my parish, to lift spirits and bring a bit of joy. So, on the 26th March, I went out to the Portobello Road.'

He was cautious about the effects of hitting the streets with a loudspeaker, blaring out Judy Collins' Amazing Grace on Spotify. 'I thought I might be told to do one,' he says jauntily. 'But I was amazed by the response. People were really moved. They clapped and invited me back! They probably regret that now. I believe God was coming alongside people, letting them know He's there.'

Over the following weeks, Allerton did 64 walking services around London, helped by the amazing weather. Each service -- with a hymn, a prayer and a 60-second sermon -- took seven minutes. He invited people -- up to 50 at a time -- to join in from a window or doorway. 'So many people commented on social media, saying things like, "I'm not religious but I've got goosebumps. There are tears coming down my face." God's presence was touching people.'

By getting out and about, Allerton has kept working through the year, but he is an exception to the rule. In the second lockdown, churches stayed open for individual prayer but not for services. 'We were hugely disappointed about the Government's decision to close churches for public worship once again,' says Allerton. 'We believe we could have kept going safely.'

During the gap between lockdowns, Allerton had, like vicars across the country, instituted careful Covid-protection procedures directed by the Church and the Government. 'There was just no scientific justification for the closure of churches,' Allerton says. 'Church is essential for people's well-being on so many levels, not just spiritual. If you think of other places that are deemed essential, how can a case not be made for public worship? We need God's help. Prayer for the world is more necessary than ever!'

While churches were closed, there was a paradoxical increase in faith and spirituality. Google searches for prayer increased by over 30 per cent and a quarter of UK adults say they watched or listened to a religious service during lockdown. The numbers using the Alpha Course (the modern, evangelistic course, popular among young worshippers) increased and the Church of England recorded huge growth in online congregations. 'Online allows you to drop in anonymously without anyone saying hello to you, which is helpful if you're curious,' explains Allerton.

Churches were reopened for communal worship, with tough restrictions on social distancing and singing, on 2 December and kept open as the country went into lockdown a month later on 4 January, mainly thanks to pressure on the government from ministers and former PM Theresa May. But with real-life services having been banned for most of 2020, what does the future of the Church of England look like? Even before the pandemic, it was facing a crisis. Worshippers had fallen to a historic low, with congregation numbers halving since the 1970s. In 2019, fewer than 700,000 people turned up for church services, attracting an average congregation of just 26.

While energetic vicars like Allerton took their mission out to the people, there were suggestions that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was dragging his heels; that he was quick to lock down churches and slow to open them up again.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop embraced Black Lives Matter and the removal of controversial statues from churches -- as he Zoomed from his kitchen. He's even taking a three-month sabbatical this May, when the country is dealing with its worst crisis since the war, attracting considerable criticism. 'The Archbishop seems to be saying that his personal well-being is paramount and that the anxiety, suffering, fear and grief of a country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis is, at best, a secondary concern,' says Karen Armstrong, a religion writer and author of The Lost Art of Scripture. The Telegraph's Tim Stanley adds, 'This does not look good. We are in the middle of a national crisis, and it's a crisis about death. This should be the Church's big moment because the central message of Christianity is that while death is bad -- and we will accompany you through it -- it's not the end.'

Other leading Christians weren't so relaxed. Last November, 122 Christian leaders took out a judicial review action against the Government, arguing that closing churches was an unlawful breach of human rights. The leaders of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Judaism, and Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Pentecostal representatives also wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, saying, 'We strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time.'

The grassroots -- many vicars, churchwardens and parishioners -- were just as angry at being shut out. For 10 years, journalist Quentin Letts has been on the parochial church council of How Caple Church, Herefordshire. One of his children was christened there. In his regular pew, he confronted the sadness of the death of his sister, Penny. So he was desperately looking forward to services resuming after the first lockdown. 'Then came this edict from the temple authorities,' Letts says. 'Do this. Do that. Forbid this. Rope off that. Squirt, sterilise, sanitise, kill, kill, kill the mood with temporal regulations -- and not a flicker of candlelight permitted.

'And I thought, "Good grief, this is not remotely the work of pastors eager to cure parishioners' souls. This is the edict of rapacious risk-managers, professionalised, power-proud form-fillers who draw their wages from our alms." I wanted nothing more to do with the Church of England's committees or councils -- so I quit.'

The Schedule of Work and Cleaning that prompted Letts's resignation from the parochial church council laid out these demands for private prayer: 'Allocate and sanitise two chairs or a pew to be used for private prayer -- place in view of the altar. Rope off or otherwise prevent access to all other forms of seating. Appropriately prevent access to organ and/or piano. All books and bookcases covered or put out of reach/touch... Close altar rail and sanitise.'

The crazy thing about these diktats is that they failed to address the nature of churches. They are vast buildings which, from day to day -- and quite often on Sundays -- are largely empty.

I sit on a committee that helps look after St Mary's Church, Warren, an enchanting, 13th-century Anglican church in Pembrokeshire, where my family has a holiday cottage. I always look in the visitors' book -- there is rarely more than a visitor a day. I can't think of any better, safer place to go in a time of national crisis and contemplate religious, spiritual and Covid-related matters in splendid isolation.

The same goes for the vast majority of the 16,000 churches run by the Church of England. To place them all under a blanket closure was completely nonsensical. 'Covid could have been such a moment for churches -- they could have become the still small oases of calm,' says Letts. 'They could have offered normality -- which is what people crave -- yet they joined secular officialdom and made everything a crisis. This from a body that is meant to be at one with the notion of death!'

This terror of death hit a new low over Remembrance Sunday last November. Talking in the House of Lords, Lord Cormack, a committed Christian and former MP, said, of a planned remembrance service in Lincoln Cathedral, 'It's an immense space where everybody can be properly socially distanced. Instead, the Government has come up with an imbecilic answer -- that the veterans, all of whom are 90 and over, can stand in the cold and be rained on but they cannot go into a safe, socially distanced cathedral. This is a disgrace.'

Letts says, 'Government ministers were privately amazed that the bishops were such an easy pushover in the first lockdown. The C of E was a little braver with lockdown two -- I think because Welby was shaken by the anger of parishioners, with many of them threatening to withhold their parish shares (ie their loot) unless the Church pulled itself together. But the insistence on wearing a mask in church is appalling. And the thing that really, really hurts is the restriction on numbers at funerals and weddings.'

The cancellation of services and the postponement of thousands of weddings cut off two of the Church's main sources of income -- the collection plate and wedding fees. Services at Christmas went ahead but they were socially distanced and reduced in size -- as were the collection donations.

Last March, Canterbury Cathedral revealed that it lost much of its income due to the slump in tourists and worshippers and if it cut the rent from its commercial tenants in the city it could face bankruptcy. Two years ago, there was talk that the Church of England might have to sell some of its cathedrals. Exeter and Peterborough were in particularly straitened circumstances. 'The majority of our donations are through direct debit -- so most of it is protected in that way,' says Allerton. 'But we have taken a hit on physical donations.'

So is the Church of England doomed, with an ageing, diminishing congregation and with the pandemic a hammer blow to faith? Can it attract younger and broader audiences without alienating older, traditional congregations? Must cathedrals instal helter-skelters to pull in the punters, as Norwich Cathedral did last year? And is a Zoom service really enough when, historically, churches have been a very physical part of the community -- not only through the church building itself but through fêtes, coffee mornings and community outreach?

In fact, some churches have been able to capitalise on the re-emergence of faith and spiritualism in the time of corona without fairground gimmicks. I met Reverend Al Gordon, the rector of Hackney. Among the churches in his east London parish is St Leonard's, Shoreditch, the church used in Rev, the comedy-drama about an inner-city vicar, played by Tom Hollander.

With his shorn back and sides -- and without a dog collar -- Gordon has a touch of the trendy vicar. But, with his enthusiasm and broad smile, he is the opposite of Rev Adam Smallbone, Hollander's world-weary, desperate priest.

In four years, Gordon has increased the congregation at St John at Hackney, from 150 to over 1,000 at three Sunday services. The local Alpha Course has trebled in size. A £5.5 million renovation of St John, by leading architect John Pawson, has just been completed. The parish has become a model for inventive ventures -- including a brewery and an apiary -- attracting greater income and congregations. Robbie Williams, Florence and the Machine and Coldplay have performed at St John.

The Hackney Church Brew Co, a brewery and bar, was set up as a joint venture with the church in 2018. This was no stunt. Last year's carol service was a huge success, with the congregation's lusty singing boosted by a few beers, including Heaven Help Me Imperial Stout with its hefty 11.5 per cent volume. The brewery was just beginning to turn a profit when coronavirus hit.

'The idea of the brewery was to give back to the local area and support our work with the homeless -- the profit from the beer goes into the Lighthouse Project [helping the vulnerable in Hackney],' says Gordon. 'We also run a thriving apiary -- churches are meant to be like beehives, working for the flourishing of the whole community.

'To survive and adapt, we've all got to be brave and creative. During the plagues of the Roman Empire, the Church grew, when pandemics came along, by loving and looking after people. It became an essential service. Nothing has changed today.'

The east London church has increased its congregation and now runs a brewery - St John at Hackney Church.

Another church under Gordon's watch in Hackney is St Luke's. While St John was given over to Zoom services, St Luke's was used as the parish food bank. When I visit, people are politely queuing for colour-coded bags -- blue for single people; green for a couple; bigger bags for families. The bags have enough staples -- cereal, rice, pasta, tea and coffee -- to last several days. When Moro, the north London restaurant, was open, it donated lamb tagines via the church. Inside St Luke's, young volunteers are efficiently packing the bags before they're handed out by the church door.

'We're deemed non-essential, but that isn't the case: we've served 160,000 meals during the pandemic, compared to 5,000 in the equivalent period before,' says Gordon. 'Right at the heart of the epidemiological pandemic, there is also a huge social and mental-health crisis. There are lots of vulnerable people in east London, with many children below the poverty line. The church plays a key part in helping them.'

Churches have also had to deal with the pandemic's direct effects. There have been 263 coronavirus deaths in the borough with 50 deaths in the immediate parish. 'Many of our parishioners and worshippers are working on the front lines of the pandemic, from virologists to nurses running Covid wards,' says Gordon.

But it's not enough for the Church just to do all these wonderful, altruistic things. Parishioners longed for its services during the lockdowns. 'What motivates people to give time to a food bank is their faith,' he adds. 'Gathering to worship is what fuels the fire of that faith. It's the heart of the church -- the dynamo that powers our food banks and initiatives. Without worship, you'll run on empty.'

In those parishes that have actively sought new ventures and parishioners, the Church of England is prospering. In Rural Ainsty, a country parish in North Yorkshire, the Reverend Richard Battersby says, 'We have a thriving Sunday morning worship -- as many and more as before lockdown. I pray with more parishioners in the morning and evening than ever before.'

Where, previously, he took separate services in four villages, they now worship together online, with Zoom services unifying the different churches. 'They'd never worshipped together before,' says Battersby. 'Faith has been made more intense by the pandemic. People on their laptops can actually contribute to the service. Someone from the Congo recently contributed.'

He's had to deal, too, with coronavirus funerals. 'We've had to come up with ways that families could mourn in the right way. After the first lockdown, we could have a service for those interring ashes, who couldn't attend a proper funeral during lockdown.'

In Battersby's parish, the congregation's contributions have even gone up. He talks about the Church being 'shocked into new ways of being' by the pandemic. 'Churches that explored an online presence have done pretty well and have seen exponential growth,' he says. 'Churches that were struggling before have seen an accelerated demise. The willingness of the church leader to adopt new technology from a theological or sacramental point is crucial.'

The vicars I talked to were largely polite about their bishops and archbishops. That's quite understandable -- they are, after all, their bosses. One West Country vicar did tell me, 'The closeness of the archbishops to the front line was in question. It wouldn't have been difficult for them to join a Zoom service, sustaining people struggling in their own parish to keep things going. They should have been an open presence -- not just posting something on Facebook.'

As I talked to these selfless vicars, I felt encouraged. The platitudes spouted at the top of the Church were depressing enough. They might have stopped church services. But they couldn't stop vicars, churchwardens and parishioners helping at food banks, attending online services and, corny as it sounds, doing good.

'Even if there's a swift end to the pandemic in virological terms, there's a bigger ontological crisis looming -- a crisis of meaning and purpose,' says Gordon. 'We're here to help.'

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Penguin)

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