The challenges of the past year have indeed been heavy and obvious – apart from the terrible loss of life caused by the coronavirus and the pain felt by grief-stricken families, we are all aware of the immense stresses and strains that have been placed upon other sectors of society, ranging from the NHS and schools, and through to the economy. But recently people’s thoughts and attention were directed by various news articles and items to the state of ‘the church’. This is because the church, like the rest of society, was strongly encouraged to ‘stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.’ With a natural concern for their communities and indeed their congregations, many of whom are elderly and vulnerable, the church wanted to do the right thing and protect its members. Unfortunately, this meant that the public ‘face’ of the church was strongly curtailed, as many churches felt obliged to close their churches for public worship, and numbers for weddings and funerals were heavily restricted. In many ways this posed a serious challenge, as many usual church activities, home, fellowship & prayer groups, lunch clubs and school activities came to a halt, and along with it all the usual fund-raising activities. However, surprisingly, for churches here within the Necton Benefice, we have managed to provide a pre-recorded online service every week since last March which has been very well received, with folk who aren’t online able to request a DVD or audio CD. Parochial Church Council meetings have continued via Zoom, and most wonderfully people have continued to meet, support and pray with and for each other and their communities weekly by Zoom since last March, which has been a great source of fellowship and encouragement. However, churches across the benefice have seen a drop in their financial income because of the pandemic, and this is true both at diocesan and national levels as well, leading to press speculation that the church is in decline and will find it hard to survive post pandemic. When articles such as the one that appeared in the Church Times (4th December 2020) report that Chelmsford Diocese had formally proposed to cut 61 stipendiary clergy post by the end of this year, it is clear that the national Church is having to ask itself some difficult questions, prompting The Spectator (6th February 2021) to ask whether the Church of England would become a ‘Holy Relic’ post-pandemic. This led to a spirited response by both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell) in the next issue, who whilst acknowledging the financial difficulties of the current situation, rightly reminded the reader how its priests have buried the dead, comforted the bereaved and both prayerfully and pastorally supported families throughout this pandemic. Yes, the times are changing, and no doubt the parochial system as we have known it will have to change too, and some stipendiary posts will be lost, but the church is not dead, nor dying. There have been more people turning to God and finding faith in Jesus Christ than ever before. “This year, we have seen the biggest rise in ordained and lay vocations for a quarter of a century,” the Archbishops said – which of course neatly reminds us of the church’s greatest asset and ‘not so secret weapon’ which is of course it’s laity. The church is not a building or even a collection of buildings – it’s people, a people who together do not simply put their faith in mere structures or some lauded institution, but in God and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, will the church survive the coronavirus challenge? Yes, of course by the grace of God and with your help!
“I long to see you … so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Romans 1.11-12