Brothers and sisters in Christ, I want to explain the plans the elders and deacons have prayerfully made for us to start meeting again.
There are two relevant things that the New Testament teaches. Firstly, the Bible teaches Christians to meet together. Right back to the beginning of the church in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, we read of all the Christians devoting themselves to “the apostles’ teaching, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2v42) – and the following verses make clear that this involved them meeting together.
Then secondly, the New Testament teaches that we are to submit to the governing authorities. 1 Peter 2v13-14 sums it up like this: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” So submitting to the government is something we do for the Lord’s sake – in other words, if we disobey the government we are rebelling against God. Since devolution gave the relevant powers to the Welsh Assembly Government, that has meant submitting to the authority of the Welsh Government in this area.
And in this case there hasn’t been any conflict between obeying the government and obeying God since there is absolutely no evidence that the government’s instructions are in any way motivated by hostility against religion in general or Christianity in particular, but have been rather seeking to protect the whole of society from the pandemic.
So, as elders, our response to coronavirus has been to be to obey the law – the government regulations and the associated guidance that the regulations state that we must have respect for. As Christians, doing so has been simply a matter of obedience to God. However we have been very keen to meet together again as soon as the regulations permit us to do so in a way that is meaningful.
For a long time we simply weren’t free to meet. But in recent weeks the regulations have changed. Initially they changed to allow us to meet, but with such a package of restrictions on what could be done when we gathered, that the elders and deacons decided that it was wiser to carry on with our online services. However a couple of weeks ago the government announced a further relaxing of restrictions that made a significant difference. There are still significant restrictions on what we can do when we gather, but now children under the age of 11 are no longer required to socially distance from each other or from those 11 and over – which obviously makes a huge difference to families with young children. Those aged 11 and over are basically to be treated as adults – which I think is what most teenagers have always wanted!! Also, now that up to 30 people can meet together outside – so long as they socially distance – that means that it is possible for us to have meaningful interaction with each other, meaning fellowship after a service … though you may want to bring a rain coat or an umbrella!
So, last Thursday, the elders met – using Zoom – to discuss the way forward and agree a general approach. We then met with the deacons on Monday evening – again using zoom – to talk through the practical details. What have we decided?
(i) We have decided to start meeting again on a Sunday starting on Sunday 30th August at 10 a.m. (and also in the evening at 6.00 p.m.)
That is the “headline”, but there is a lot of practical detail, so please be read on …!
(ii) Social distancing will mean that we won’t all be able to meet together. Our experience from the funeral that recently was held in the building was that only around 50 people who had to socially distance from those outside their extended household could be fitted into the main auditorium. Obviously the precise number depends on the size of households. We were also aware that some who are more vulnerable because of health conditions they have or simply because of their age, will decide, very reasonably, that it still wouldn’t be wise for them to meet with others at this point.
(iii) We guess that the number of those aged 11 and over who will wish to attend will be greater than we can fit into the building for one service. So, if that turns out to be correct, our plan is to repeat the service in the evening – the same sermon and so on. The desire then would be that everyone who wished to attend would attend one or other of the services.
(iv) We will seek to provide a crèche and classes for children under the age of 11 during the morning service. So we would give priority to families with young children in the morning service – that will be the occasion when teaching tailored to their needs will be given. Parents are, of course, free to bring under 11s to the evening service if they wish, but they will be responsible for supervising them.
(v) Anyone wishing to attend will need to contact the church to “book a place” for them and their family in advance. This is necessary because we will have a strictly limited number of places available, and we will need to know who is coming and what extended household they belong to in advance so that we can arrange the seating accordingly. Unless we end up in a situation where there is more space available in the morning or evening than the number wishing to attend we will not be able to admit people who just “turn up”.
(vi) We want those who are new to the Christian faith or who are not yet Christians but are wishing to find out more about Christianity to be able to attend our services. We will be producing a short video for use on social media, and also will put a banner up outside church, advertising the fact that we are restarting services – and giving information about how to “book a place”. If we were to arrive at a position where more people wished to attend than could be fitted into two services – which would be a lovely problem to have – then we would give priority to those who are new to the faith or wishing to find out more about Christianity. Those of us who have been Christians for some time will wish to follow our Lord’s example. Paul puts it like this in Philippians 2v3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”
(vii) The fact that not everyone will be in a position to attend the services for health reasons means that we will be seeking to live-stream the morning services or record them so that they can be made available on YouTube and that audio recordings will continue to be available to those who are not on the internet.
(viii) The Welsh government have given detailed guidance filling out the legal regulations concerning reopening places of worship. We will be seeking to follow this. This means that the deacons will be working through matters relating to cleaning, stewarding, one-way systems, providing sanitisation facilities, laying out the main auditorium to comply with social distancing and so on. They will also be working on the system for people booking places. In some of these matters they will be looking for help from others, we will let members know of ways in which they can offer to help.
I have said a lot about the “how”, but you may have notice that I haven’t yet said anything about “what”! – What will we be doing when we meet? The guidance attached to the regulations – which legally we are obliged to have due regard for – makes it very clear that we are not allowed to have congregational singing at present. So the absence of singing will probably be the most obvious thing. Basically we can do anything which involves people speaking one at a time. So the service will include Bible readings, prayers and preaching. We will also be able to include people sharing testimony of the Lord’s dealings with them. As I have mentioned earlier we can make special provision for those under 11 by running a crèche and classes for them.
The guidance also makes clear that those present should be encouraged to leave the building promptly, but we can meet in groups of up to 30 outside – while keeping social distance. So we are planning to divide the congregation into two at the end of the service (which would give groups, of those age 11 and over, with less than 30 in), and send the one group out to the ground at the back of the church, and the other group to the ground at the front of the church. (The children under 11 are free to play together however their parents think is appropriate.) We would really encourage those attending to use this time as an opportunity to exhort and encourage one another in our faith. Hebrews 10v24 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.”
So far I have just been talking about Sundays. We would also like to start meeting midweek as well. So the plan is to start doing that next week – Wednesday 26th August. We are going for a Wednesday evening rather than a Tuesday evening to space out the use of the building for meetings, to reduce the level of cleaning that will be needed in between the Sunday evening meeting and the midweek meeting. We don’t normally have more than 50 people at a midweek meeting, so we won’t need a “booking” system for attendance. We would simply ask you to turn up early at 7.15 p.m., because we will need to arrange the chairs as people arrive in accordance with the size of extended households attending. If it does turn out that more people turn up than we can accommodate – which would be a lovely problem to have! – we will have to work of a “first-come-first-served” basis, and review how we organise things for future meetings. We may be able to live-stream these meetings as well, but can’t be sure yet.
So what happens next?
Please think and pray about whether, given your particular health circumstances and that of others in your household, it would be wise for you and other members of your household to attend on a Sunday. If you would like to join us on Sunday 30th August, please also think about whether you would like to come on a Sunday morning or a Sunday evening – or whether you could come to either service. (It would make it easier for the deacons if you were willing to come to either service.)
You will need to make sure you are acquainted with the Welsh Government regulations concerning extended households. Basically, at the time I am posting this, Wednesday 19th August, two households can form an extended household, but it is expected that on Saturday 22nd August that will be extended to four households. The regulations are absolutely explicit that, once you have formed your extended household of two – or, from Saturday, four – households, you cannot change that extended household. So you cannot form one extended household in the week and then another for attending church on Sundays!
The deacons will shortly be in contact with those who were in our regular congregation before lockdown to ask whether you wish to join us on Sunday 30th, whether that is for the morning or evening service, or you could attend either, and whether you are part of an extended household with others who wish to attend. (The deacons will need to know that information for arranging the seating.) They will also need to know whether those coming are 11 and over or under 11 – though I’m sure they can guess with most of us!
If you were not part of our regular congregation before lockdown, we would be delighted if you would like to join us when we start to meet again. Please contact us to let us know. It would be really helpful if you could give us as much information as possible about whether the morning service at 10 a.m. or the evening one at 6 p.m. is possible for you, how many in your household, whether any are under 11 and so on.
Thank you for reading this far! We look forward to seeing you soon.
Tim (on behalf of the elders and deacons)