Letter to the Parish - Friday 19 March 2021

First published on: 19th March 2021

It was while uploading our Online Service last weekend that I had a realisation of just how long we have all been living with what some people have been calling ‘The New Normal’. For it was this week, last year, when I remember reality dawning of what was about to happen. What if church has to close? What do we do?

Here was I, several hundred miles away from Farsley in Jersey and my mind was stuck on what was happening back home. I had only met Sue McWhinney once on a visit back to Farsley in February, but I knew she was still trying to get to know people in the Parish and suddenly it was apparent that church services were going to have to stop.

It brought to mind a sermon a few months earlier when we had all been encouraged to think about what more we could do in church once Paul retired. Lots of us might need to help out with different things while we wait for a new vicar to be appointed. There was a voice in my head telling me this was the moment to step in and offer help, albeit from afar.

I suggested Sue going into church and filming herself recording a service which we could put online for people to watch at home. She had been toying with a similar idea. Not everyone would have a computer or the internet but we had to find some way of keeping going if this strange virus from China locked us out of St John’s.

Our first recorded service was for Mothering Sunday service which was a week later in 2020 than it is this year. It was very simple. Just Sue, in church, talking to a camera.

Over the coming weeks we kept improving it. We found ways of getting the words on the screen. We included hymns recorded and sung by Eileen and others. We got people to film themselves doing the readings and the prayers and so we have carried on since Gareth joined us in December.

We weren’t alone either. Many churches were having similar ideas. Online worship was springing up in parishes all around us as congregations found new ways of staying connected when we were all stranded in our own homes. It is actually quite remarkable when you look at what we all managed to do with no preparation at all and it’s good to take stock of what we have done in the last year which has been positive.

At the moment we are in a season which is all about preparation as we go through Lent heading towards Easter. This Sunday we will hear the passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus predicts his own death – something those following him would not have believed. Jesus was trying to prepare them for what he knew was coming. The crowd did not believe him. This was outside of their own understanding for what was going to happen.

It reminds me very much of how we all felt last year. None of us understood what the next few months were going to be like. There are times this year that I’ve thought that a blessing. It would have been incredibly difficult to hear last March that this March we would still be feeling the effects of coronavirus. But there are many times over the last year when I’ve sat down and thought to myself that we have to trust in God that things will be OK in the end.

And while we have been muddling along, look at what’s happened. We have evolved. We have grown. If you had said at the start of 2020 that the church was going to develop to reach new people through online worship, can you imagine how many meetings and discussions there would have been before we considered whether it was something we could actually do? There was none of that. We just had to make a decision and go for it. We trusted in what we were doing and got on with it.

I imagined we might be doing this for six weeks or so, maybe a couple of months. I never thought that after a year we would still be doing it.

Physically being in church is so important to all of us. But using new ways of reaching people online is giving people a new way of hearing God’s message. They can ‘go to church’ at home, fitting it in around their busy lives. It feels like online church is something we will want to carry on with in some form indefinitely. It might not look exactly as it has over the past 12 months. We might find different ways of sharing our online services, but it seems silly to turn our backs on an idea that was created out of necessity but has now proved to a surprising way of growing our church.

And when I scroll back through the services and look at how many hundreds of people have watched them and enjoyed them, the numbers counted digitally by the website, those are all people who would not have heard that message of love and hope from God without our effort in putting it out there.

So, to everyone who has helped with our online worship over the last year I personally want to say a big thank you. Thank you for taking the time film yourselves, for taking the care to make sure the video looks and sounds good and for putting yourselves in front of the camera. It’s something I do as a job. Most people don’t and I know it can be a daunting thing to do. Your efforts are certainly valued by everyone who has watched them.

On a personal level it has made me feel more connected to you all in the last year, despite the miles between us, than probably at any point since I joined St John’s some eight or nine years ago. It’s given me a purpose at times when there seemed little purpose. And as I near the end of my time in Jersey it has made me look forward even more to May when I will be coming home and looking forward to seeing everyone in person, rather than on a screen.

It is all too easy to think of the last year as a year that passed us by, that we missed, where nothing happened because nothing was allowed to happen. But looking back now, things definitely DID happen. Lots of things we didn’t want to happen. The rules. The distancing. The closures of so many parts of our lives. But also lots of good. The sense of community, of pulling together, helping one another through, finding ways to support people. Those are all things to take comfort from and things which I personally hope we all hang onto as we see carry on emerging from the pandemic.

And as we reflect on the last year, approaching Easter, a time of new hope and new beginnings there feels to be so much more for us all to look forward to in the not too distant future.

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