Churches and Covid-19: Lessons from the Frontline

First published on: 11th June 2021

Churches and Covid-19: Lessons from the Frontline

The response of churches across the UK and Ireland to the Covid-19 pandemic was examined in a USPG webinar on Thursday 10 June.

The Rev’d Canon Richard Bartlett, Director of Mission Engagement at USPG, said, ‘The past year has demonstrated the adaptability and responsiveness of local parish churches in meeting the changing and growing needs of their congregations during lockdown. We hope to reflect on the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 crisis and how we can take these forward’.

Dr Anne Richards, the Church of England’s National Advisor on Mission Theology, New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities, said, ‘Over the course of 2020, I have received thousands of enquiries around the relationship between God and the pandemic. Initially, such queries were primarily ‘panic questions’ – why was the pandemic happening and why would God allow such a thing to happen? Subsequently, I received questions about how people could protect themselves from Covid-19: would purchasing spiritual artefacts or attending confession guarantee safety from the virus?’

She added, “As the pandemic progressed, people started to contact me with basic questions – what is church and how do I pray? These questions came from those who had been to an online church service but had no prior knowledge of the Church of England or Christianity. I am interested in seeing whether I continue to receive as many questions about church from curious strangers as I have done during the pandemic. I believe we need to deepen our relationship with these people rather than acting as an information and advice service. How do we continue to engage with these people? A commitment from the Church to truthfulness, listening and solidarity in the mystery of how and why some things happen may be a good start’.

Delegates asked Dr Richards about how to deal with questions about conspiracy theories such as ‘the Great Reset’ and how to work with communities who are resistant to vaccination. Dr Richards advised those in attendance to ‘empathise with conspiracy theorists’ feelings of powerlessness and fear but try to provide common sense answers’ and ‘consider dynamics of trust within communities and why such groups may not trust the government or other national institutions.’

Father Alex Frost, Vicar of St Matthew the Apostle with Holy Trinity Church, Burnley, said, ‘At the start of the pandemic, I sensed that the country was heading into a crisis and that the Church needed to do something about this. In the first few weeks of lockdown, I encountered Pastor Mick Fleming from the ‘Church on the Street’ ministries in Burnley. Around this time, local churches were closing their doors, my church had been forced to close our Breakfast Club and there was a general feel of anxiety in the local area. Mick and I decided to start a food bank from the back of his car’.

He added, ‘Initially, the food bank had very few clients or donors. We managed to raise greater awareness of the food bank using social media and it moved to the church hall. During this time, I heard stories of addiction, grief and domestic abuse. The food bank continued to grow, more people began to volunteer and we were contacted by the BBC. The food bank featured on BBC news and support for it increased dramatically. St Matthew the Apostle with Holy Trinity Church and Church on the Street ministries received a total of £350,000 in donations and thousands of letters of support. We decided to keep our church doors closed for worship but open to the local community during the pandemic’.

Fr Hugo Adan, Rector of the Parish of Holy Trinity with St Matthew, Southwark, said, ‘Faith, justice and travelling alongside the dispossessed is the focus of our ministry at Holy Trinity with St Matthew. In Southwark, Spanish is our second language, with a large Latino community in the borough. All of our services are in English and Spanish and we have English-speaking and Spanish-speaking churchwardens. At the start of the pandemic, we regularly provided food for around 40 families through our food bank. We also reached out to families who do not speak much English to see if they required help. We now provide food for around 400 families a week and have more than 150 volunteers. The church also runs a clothing ministry for those who cannot afford new clothes and we organise English classes. Many of the people who first came to us for help are now leading these ministries. This is important because these lay leaders can relate to those in need better than any minister can’.

Dr Jo Sadgrove asked Fr Frost and Fr Adan about how they cared for themselves and others during the pandemic. Fr Frost said, ‘It has been an exhausting year but support from clergy friends and prayer requests from strangers have really helped’. Fr Adan responded, ‘The unrelenting support of my congregation has helped me through the last year. I believe you also need people in your life who will cry alongside you when things are difficult’. Delegates asked the speakers about the link between the global church and local contexts. Fr Frost replied, ‘The global situation regarding Covid-19 should be a concern for all of us and we should spend time praying for those in other parts of the world’.

Speakers included: Dr Anne Richards, the Church of England’s National Advisor on Mission Theology, New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities, Fr Hugo Adan, Rector of the Parish of Holy Trinity with St Matthew, Southwark and Fr Alex Frost, Vicar of St Matthew the Apostle with Holy Trinity Church, Burnley.