My church has an evening meeting on Sundays, either a bible study and discussion or a prayer session. Every Sunday evening it makes me desperately sad and tearful. It’s partly because I miss physical church, and miss knowing that even when I can’t get to church it is still going on physically in a building with people meeting and speaking and sharing physical contact with one another. But what mostly makes feel so sad is that a group of Christians worshipping and hearing from the bible together on a regular basis is meant to be so much more than a group of Christians meeting together; and we could have been that even during lockdown; and we haven’t, or at least not yet.
In particular at the start of the coronavirus crisis there was a need for food services: foodbanks for those who couldn’t afford necessities; pantries for those with a little more money but still struggling; shopping for those who used to buy online but couldn’t get delivery slots; cooking services for those who are homeless or disabled or frantically busy or otherwise would benefit from having prepared food delivered to them. This was a great opportunity for the church as denominational institutions to co-ordinate a nationwide approach that delivered locally.
The Church of England (CofE), for example, could have encouraged every single one of its church buildings to be used in one way or another to provide food or other vital services. They could have co-ordinated as an institution with other Christian-based organisations such as Trussel Trust (foodbanks), Church Action on Poverty (food pantries) and Christians Against Poverty (debt advice). They could have co-ordinated with local authorities, Citizen’s Advice Bureaux and local homelessness services. Instead, the CofE said that its buildings must be closed, and some areas of the CofE interpreted this as meaning that they not only couldn’t open food services, but had to close the ones they were running.
I’m really struck by the inadequacy of ad-hoc measures. I hear in my church’s zoom chats how so-and-so has been encouraged by the way in which they are regularly called by friends from the church, or how they themselves have enjoyed taking the time to check up on church neighbours. And that’s great for those who are checked up on. But what about those who aren’t? They don’t get the same experience of church community. It’s the same when I’m in zoom chats with people from across the country in different churches: some people experience great community and support, possibly from their church; others experience nothing.
Without co-ordination, how does a church – whether the local congregations or the national institutions – know that all of its members are being supported, rather than some going forgotten whilst others get double or triple the support? Even the people who are so good at pro-actively reaching out to others and sustaining long-term supportive relationships need people in their own lives who will pro-actively reach out to them, rather than them having to ask for it.
It’s hard asking for help. It’s much easier if someone phones you and says, ‘we’d like – as a church – to offer you these services (weekly phone calls; food shopping; meals; collecting medicines; driving to appointments; gardening; dog walking; etc), and would you like to accept them?’ You know when someone offers specific forms of help that they will say yes if you then ask them for that help. When all that is offered is generic help, you don’t know whether they just meant they’d throw in a couple of items on their weekly shop on an occasional basis, or if they’d shop every week for you for months on end and cook your meals too. When all that is offered is help from a single individual, then you don’t know if that person will be able to bear the weight of your long-term support, or if they would tell you if they couldn’t; you don’t feel safe accepting it, in the way that you can from an organisation. Organisations, you hope, have got plans and procedures and a number of people to call upon, so that they can manage to meet people’s needs without overburdening a few individuals.