Churches across the UK have done an incredible job serving their communities during this pandemic. The church has not, and is not, closed. Indeed, many have found creative ways to continue regular public worship, to love our neighbours and to obey the governing authorities. Whilst the rules are different across the UK, many church leaders now face a situation where they can gather in person but must decide if they should.

We know our member churches are approaching this differently depending on their local context, their congregation, their facilities and their church needs. This is a moment for kindness, wisdom and grace. We ask congregations to understand the difficult choices faced by their leaders even if they disagree with them. We ask churches to respect those who decide differently and pray for them in this moment. These are challenging times, but we are called to be a non-anxious presence and carriers of holy hope.


In-person church services: to meet or not to meet

Announcements in England and Scotland introducing fresh lockdowns will have brought an abrupt change to many people’s plans for the coming weeks. Schools have been told to close, putting additional strain on parents or carers, there are stricter requirements to work from home, and limitations on leaving the house have been tightened. These follow lockdowns that came into force in Wales and Northern Ireland in late December and the expectation that further restrictions in those nations could still follow. 

The announcement that church buildings in England are not required to close, and people may leave their homes to safely gather for worship, will require as much, if not more, attention and action by churches than if they were required to close, as in March and November. Variations still exist across the four nations of the UK, with churches required to close in Scotland, while in Wales and Northern Ireland they can remain open.

Since March last year churches have continued to meet, primarily online. Churches have mustered incredible creativity and ingenuity to find ways to continue connecting and worshiping together. For many, especially those who were previously excluded from physically engaging with church services, gathering together online is an imperfect but vital substitute.

Churches have also continued to use their buildings for the provision of vital services, including foodbanks and other activities. Essential support groups being able to operate during this lockdown will be a lifeline for groups caring for those with drug and alcohol dependencies, the bereaved or those preparing for the birth of a child.

In terms of the prevalence of the virus, we are in a categorically different situation than we were a couple of months ago, when the November lockdown was introduced, and therefore our response should acknowledge the changing landscape. This leaves churches with a challenge in early 2021, especially in places where cases are soaring. Where I live, in Sutton, south London, cases have jumped by more than 50 per cent in the past week alone, and they are around 10 times what they were in November.

By not requiring churches in England to close, the Government has done what we asked for in November, but that doesn’t mean it is the easiest option. In fact, in many ways it makes the decisions more challenging for churches. With a government-mandated requirement not to meet in person, virtually all churches complied and took immediate action to meet together online. The decision was taken out of their hands. Furthermore, for those who were especially unhappy about the decision to close church buildings, it provided a target for their opposition.

This time around the responsibility will lie with churches and denominations to decide what course of action to follow. Some groups and networks may issue instructions for their churches, others will provide guidelines, while others will likely leave the decision to local congregations. 

Churches should pay close attention to the impact that their actions will have on the spread of this virus. That means that different churches in different contexts in different parts of the country will likely reach different conclusions. Key things to consider will include the size and nature of the building you meet in, the ventilation, as well as factors such as the prevalence of the virus in your area and the risk profile of your congregation. It is essential that all measures put in place as part of a risk assessment ahead of reopening are revisited and strengthened where necessary.

It will be important for churches to provide opportunities for congregations to gather online. For those who choose to do so exclusively it is vital that churches consider how they can provide community for those who are particularly vulnerable and connection for those who might not have the technological means to engage. 

When my church met together again in person for the first time in the late summer, despite the restrictions and the inability to sing as a church, there was something indescribably wonderful about being together. Online church has been a blessing throughout this crisis but it cannot entirely replace meeting together in person – even if we don’t do that for the time being.

Many churches will assess their situation and the risks of meeting and consider that not meeting in person will be the best way to ensure that their congregation and local community are not put at greater risk from the virus. Furthermore, if churches do meet there is an additional risk that not only might they become places where the virus spreads but they may also be seen as such, and churches could be viewed as acting irresponsibly towards their congregation and local community. This could also have a knock-on effect to the witness of the church and its work to make Jesus known.

However churches in England decide to proceed over the coming weeks, there is a vital need for grace towards each other. Different churches will reach different decisions, and, as a membership organisation with thousands of churches from dozens of denominations and networks, within the Evangelical Alliance’s network there will be different approaches. 

We need to have grace for each other and assume the best of motives for the decisions that are reached. A church deciding to continue meeting should not be assumed to be acting recklessly and not caring for their community and congregation. Likewise, churches not meeting together should not be thought of as abandoning their faith or taking the command to meet together any less seriously.

Within churches there will also be differences of opinion. I expect many church leaders are receiving emails imploring them to act one way or another, and they will be aware that whatever decision they take may prove divisive. We should have grace towards those taking difficult decisions in a fast-moving context, following a year no one expected or was adequately prepared for.

2020 has proved what many of us already knew: meeting together is not about the building we are in, and witnessing to the good news of Jesus is not limited to a service on a Sunday. While the coming months will bring challenges to churches, and there is a very real need for caution as we act and take decisions, we can also be courageous as we speak the hope of Jesus into these bleak winter months.