The current environment we find ourselves in is one which is crying out for hope.

The change in government guidelines and regulations that we’re seeing on a seemingly weekly basis exposes how vital hope is, and yet how easily we place our hope in the wrong things. 

We hope for a reduction in coronavirus cases to enable our lives to return to some semblance of normality. Better still, we hope for a vaccine that will enable us to return to normal life. We hope for an economy that protects people’s livelihoods and rewards good work. None of these are groundless hopes; we can have reasons to believe why and how they will happen, and each of us may have roles to play to see them achieve. But they are not the hope in which we place our full and firm trust. 

That hope is Jesus. It is vital that churches and Christian ministries act responsibly and safeguard both their congregation and wider community through their actions, but this is a time for the people of God to publicly and faithfully make known their hope – to exhibit a confidence in the goodness that they know and the one who makes all things new. 

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Increasing restrictions and changing context

Over the last week the four nations of the UK have announced a significant range of new restrictions in the wake of a rise in coronavirus cases and fear that the number could continue to escalate and lead to increased hospitalisation and fatalities. 

Each of the nations are taking slightly different approaches, with Scotland and Northern Ireland stopping more than one household from meeting in private houses, and hospitality venues in England, Scotland and Wales required to close at 10pm. In England a major shift has been the switch in emphasis to now encourage people to work from home where they can – a reversal of the policy over the summer which pushed for a return to office work. 

These changes are on top of a tightening of restrictions on social interaction in recent weeks which saw social gatherings in England legally limited to six people unless everyone is in the same household. With each new restriction, each loss of liberty, it can feel that hope is waning.

The long haul

Perhaps more notable in the announcements this week has been the emphasis on the anticipated timescale of the restrictions. When the first lockdown measures were passed in March, they were introduced on a rolling three-week basis, but these continued for several months before being eased over the summer. On this occasion a less optimistic timeframe has been set, with the expectation that the restrictions introduced this week could be in place for six months. 

This means the early mentions that social distancing could be eased from late 2020 are now highly unlikely to be realised, and organisations will need to prepare for a significant period operating under the current conditions and recognise that further restrictions may come in the next weeks and months. This is a moment when people lose hope. 

The joy of the Lord is our strength

It is in this context that the importance of the church lifting our collective eyes is vital. Caution in not spreading the virus is vital, but public confidence in the hope we have and share is critical. We cannot be managerial at a time when our society needs leadership. 

We can show to the world that our hope does not depend in the daily case numbers, the government’s action or inaction, or our personal situations.

Psalm 121 starts: I life up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – He who watches over you will not slumber”.

Our hope resides in heaven, but heaven invaded earth in the person of Jesus; and we, His ambassadors, are to be people of hope and merchants of joy to His world.

Whether we are meeting in person, on Zoom or dispersed, we are His people and His witness to our communities. There is much to concern ourselves with in the world today, but we are not to be concerned. God’s people are always to be a non-anxious presence, to cast aside fears and to trust in God, but right now that seems of primary importance.

Our hope resides in heaven, but heaven invaded earth in the person of Jesus; and we, His ambassadors, are to be people of hope and merchants of joy to His world.

Be strong and courageous

Being courageous is not the same as being foolhardy. The changes currently do not place any further restrictions on churches, as any number of people can attend venues that are COVID secure’. The Prime Minister explicitly mentioned in his statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday that places of worship would continue to be able to open for public services. Churches will, however, need to be conscious of their responsibility not to facilitate social interaction that is now prohibited by the law. 

As we meet we should be exemplary in our actions and behaviour. Let us go above and beyond what is strictly required and act to keep the congregation safe and make our churches places where the community is welcomed – with socially distanced open arms. 

The Government has not placed legal obligations on churches to collect track and trace data or display QR codes for visitors to register their attendance. But these are measures churches should take. Singing is strongly advised against as it is considered a higher risk activity – especially in confined spaces. We should act responsibly and not push the rules to their limits. This is an opportunity for us to innovate and experiment with what church can look like as we experience the wrench of cutting out the fellowship from our physical meetings. 

Churches should be one of the last places mandated to close their doors if the autumn resurgence of the virus picks up pace. It would be wrong for the Government to prioritise economic recovery and prosperity at the cost of religious freedom. But as churches we should also value the freedom we have to meet and use that responsibly. 

We defend our religious freedom by practising our beliefs; we speak the name of Jesus and proclaim the joy that He brings and the hope that He offers. 

As the Lord commanded Joshua: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”