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Pastoral letter:The Re-opening of Great Saint Mary's for Public Worship

Dear Friends in Christ:

'I was glad when they said unto me: we will go into the House of the Lord' (Psalm 122)

Last week it was announced by the Government that places of worship could again be used for acts of public worship; which was followed by a number of documents from Government and the Church of England explaining how this was to be done. In all that follows we are adhering to those documents, and the advice of our Bishops.

Last night the Parochial Church Council approved a pattern of worship which would enable services to be held in Great St Mary's from this coming Sunday, 12th July. That pattern of worship also includes provision for continuing online worship, as we are conscious that a large number of our church family will not feel able to return to the church building at present. The model is rooted in our Vision of What is God calling us to be? Therefore what must we do?. As such, it is the result of a huge amount of prayer, reflection, and conversation among the clergy team. 

It also recognizes the practical realities of changed patterns of living brought about by Covid-19. These include health and safety management of those attending, the safety of staff and volunteers, and a significant proportion of church members shielding/self-isolating: the Government advises those aged 70 and over to stay at home as much as possible, and I am legally obliged to advise anyone 70 and over to note this advice, though individuals are free to make their own decisions.

So from Sunday until September our pattern will be:

  • 8am BCP Holy Communion in Great St Mary's

  • 9.30am Morning Prayer/Eucharist online (followed by coffee via Zoom)

  • 10.30am Eucharist/Morning Prayer in Great St Mary's (with organ music but no hymns)

  • 11am Children's Church online (this Sunday only, after which Children's Church takes its annual summer break)

The 9.30am and 10.30am services will alternate between Morning Prayer and Eucharist, so that when there is a Eucharist in church, the online service will be Morning Prayer, and vice versa. Conscious of a wide diversity of preference in tradition and language of prayer, the Morning Prayer (Mattins) services will alternate between traditional and modern language forms (at the end of the summer we will be seeking views from the whole community as to which form of Morning Prayer they prefer). We hope very much that current scientific research on singing and Covid-19 will enable our choirs to return in the the autumn, and our hope is to restart Evensong then.

The model is based on the following calculations of physically-distanced persons (at 2m) within the church building:

  • the Nave is capable of seating 58 individuals (14 either side of the aisle, 15 in each side aisle - certainly to begin with we will not use the nave altar, so sightlines will not be good from the side aisles)

  • each gallery: 30 individuals

  • The Vicar/Officiant

  • The Preacher

  • 2 additional ministers in the sanctuary

  • Households attending as a group will increase this capacity as they can, of course, sit together. But, consequently, others seated must be measured from the entire household.

That means somewhere between 90 to approximately 105 people in the nave and galleries, plus the organist, and between 2-6 vergers/stewards unseated.

People should allow much more time than usual to get to church, and will be guided to their seats by stewards. The directions of stewards must be followed at all times. Patience and gentleness will be necessary for everyone, and there will be ongoing learning from continued practice and experience week-by-week. We hope not to have to have to institute a pre-booking system (as many churches have).  Entry will be via the South porch, and the gates will be shut 10 minutes after the service begins.

  • Once seated, people cannot move around the building, except under the direction of a steward for a good reason. People will need to wait at the end of a service to be safely escorted from the building. 

  • The toilets may only be used in an emergency. 

  • Access to the vestry is strictly confined to duty clergy and vergers. 

  • Children may not under any circumstances be apart at any point from their parents or family group, and must sit with their parents in pews at all times. Adults may not freely wander around the building to say hello to their friends. 

  • There will be no printed orders of service: orders of service will be available online every Thursday for you to print off at home, or simply bring your own smartphone or tablet to follow in church. 

  • There can be no singing (though we will be able to enjoy organ music), and spoken responses should be quietly said. 

  • Communion will be received in one kind (the bread alone), with communicants standing to receive - the bread and blessings will be administered without any spoken words. 

  • At the time of writing there can be no coffee/fellowship in Michaelhouse, or the churchyard, and people may not gather in groups for conversation. The ministers will greet people at the doors briefly after the service, and we ask you to remember to maintain distance from them as you leave.

Frankly, this is not easy, and a very reduced offering from the norm. I know how very restrictive it all sounds. But it is the reality with which we need to live at present - and yet, even within these limits, we believe we can still provide meaningful, Spirit-filled, Christ-centred worship in such a context.

It is precisely because of these restrictions, and the difficulties that many will find in adhering to them, that we are ensuring to provide a legitimate online act of worship every Sunday, with a separate online Children's Church in term-time: both of which are as valid an expression of church as the worship taking place in the building. We also anticipate possible further provision off-site for children if distancing rules are further relaxed, and Carolynn and Rebekah are giving thought to that, as well as to some practical advice and support for parents who feel able to bring their children to church.

I should emphasize once more that circumstances are changing all the time; a detailed risk-assessment/action plan has been drawn up for each service, and all staff and volunteers are being briefed and trained. As I said above, their directions must be followed at all times for the safety and well-being of everyone concerned.

We will continue to stream worship on weekdays from our homes on weekdays with Morning Prayer at 9am and Night Prayer (Compline) at 9pm on Facebook Live (10am & 10pm on Twitter and YouTube).

It is not envisaged that, at least to begin with, the services in church will also be live-streamed, but we are already beginning to explore this possibility in the longer term. Post-pandemic, I would expect arrangements to be made for all our principal services to live-streamed, with a mixture of audio and video.

Large-scale civic/university services will be reviewed on a case by case basis when more information is known. 

There is still a great deal of uncertainty around. As we work all of this out, there will need to be a capacity for improvisation to handle rapidly changing circumstances – 'keeping uncertainty alive' is the motto a very close friend of mine is encouraging his colleagues to use. We have to be realistic. We cannot meet the individual needs of everyone. But we hope that, to get us through these first months, the model proposed here will provide the opportunity for most to have an encounter with the living God, inside the church building and online. God's Love is not constrained by space or time. I pray that that Love may be a reality for you, however and wherever you worship, in the weeks and months to come.

with love and prayers,

The Reverend Canon Adrian Daffern
Vicar of The University Church
Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College

Great St Mary's
Senate House Hill

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