The start of September is for many people the start of a new year– the school year begins, summer ends, and after the break, things return to normal.

However, this year the return to normality is not at all like we’re used to. It’s not a six-week break that we’re returning from, but a gradual and hesitant resumption of something akin to the usual after six months of very unusual times. 

Over the course of the coronavirus crisis, as a society, we have all had to adapt to multiple changes, some of which happened very quickly. Other changes, especially as we continue to emerge from the lockdown, are happening much more slowly: restrictions are being lifted gradually and different parts of society are resuming at different paces. 

The start of this new year’ has seen a push for people to return to working in offices and schools fully restarting, but it’s not normal, and everyone knows that. The challenges that this disruption poses to our lives continue to unfold, and many of them are now focused around economic hurdles rather than health concerns. 

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In city centres there are many industries dependent on a physically present workforce, and this isn’t yet happening in a way that will sustain the hospitality sector that has burgeoned in recent years because of the practices and habits of workers. We all have to work out how to navigate this new landscape. 

Resume activities but restrict social interaction

At the heart of the Government’s regulations and guidance for relaxing the lockdown is a pair of principles that help you to understand what can happen and what should still be avoided. We need to appreciate the distinction between activities and social interaction. Activities are being encouraged to resume, so restaurants open, cinemas start showing the latest movies, and churches can hold public services. But social interaction is continuing to be discouraged, this is because transmission between households when they spend sustained periods of time in close proximity is considered one of the highest areas of risk. Activities are permitted on the presumption that they are things individuals go to and consume on their own, and can do so without interacting with other people. 

This is a challenge in all settings: you are allowed to go to a restaurant but should only interact with one other household if it’s indoors, and it’s only slightly more permissive if you’re outside. (The exact guidance varies slightly from nation to nation within the UK, with England and Northern Ireland stricter than Wales and Scotland.) Churches all highly value social interaction, and it is almost impossible for us to conceive how to run activities that deliberately exclude the ability to interact socially. Services aren’t something you go to and consume, but something you participate in, and the social fellowship is a crucial component of what makes a congregational setting so important. When it comes to other activities churches run, the same tension runs through: you can run a luncheon club, but only while limiting social interaction; you can restart youth groups, dance clubs, baby and toddler groups, but with the same stipulation that people should limit social interaction. 

Two traps

Churches are not simple organisations, and the guidance that’s applicable isn’t limited to that included under places of worship, but also includes the community venues advice, that for restaurants and cafés, for early years provision, for young people, for workplaces, and many others. We’ve done our best to help churches understand how the guidance affects them, but we recognise that this is not an easy task. Having spoken with and advised hundreds of churches over the last few months, I think there are two traps that churches are inclined to slip into when navigating the regulations and guidance.

The first trap is being too eager to do everything that you have done before in the way that you did it before. For now, that’s just not possible, and especially when this is primarily around facilitating fellowship. The two aspects of activity that are difficult to do safely are social gatherings – these can’t take place unless done very carefully and with conscientious adherence to the guidelines – and meetings in homes. For social gatherings, such as a church BBQ, you could theoretically run one in the way a café or restaurant would, but you would need to plan seating carefully with rules on who can sit with who, and you would need carefully food production and distribution systems. In effect, this wouldn’t be a social gathering but a catering operation. 

For home groups this is not simply isn’t allowed at the moment, as there are significant restrictions on the number of households that can meeting in homes; 2 in England and in Northern Ireland, 3 in Scotland, and it’s more complicated in Wales. Individual pastoral visits can happen, but additional care should be taken if you’re visiting a vulnerable person. 

The second trap is not doing anything because of the hurdles and challenges involved. I think that too is a mistake. The guidance does allow churches to meet and while digital services have served a significant purpose during this crisis and shone a light on the fact that some have now been able to participate who previously were excluded, I don’t think continuing solely online indefinitely is the best way to gather as a church. We can meet, so with wisdom, I think we should.

Confidence and caution

As churches across the UK we should act with caution as we resume services, but also with confidence in why we are meeting together. It is not just to get back to normal, or to meet for the sake of meeting, nor to exercise our freedom because we have it. It is because we are the visible witness of Christ to our communities, and as we meet, we demonstrate what is of primary importance to us. 

There is also a risk that in not meeting while other parts of society are resuming, we send a signal that meeting together isn’t important. It’s not that we are to be like the rest of the world, but an over cautious approach sends a message too. It’s been vital that throughout this crisis we prioritise the care of our communities, and that’s why it was right for churches not to gather. It’s vital now that we show our faith in Christ is alive and that the good news He brings is for our neighbours, our friends and our colleagues. The physical activity of meeting is important in and of itself, but it is also instrumental in serving our witness to our communities. 

Hopeful and not anxious

We are to be people of hope in our world. We are to show those around us what it looks like to be a non-anxious presence in a world that’s often overcome by fear. Caution and confidence are not mutually exclusive, but go hand in hand; we have confidence in why we are meeting together and exercise caution as we do so. And we speak of hope to a world that is groaning for it. Hope that doesn’t disappoint, hope that isn’t thwarted by local lockdowns or changes in the R number. Hope that has a name and His name is Jesus.