A beacon of hope, prayer and practical care in Aylsham

Aylsham Parish Church has long been at the heart of its community and has continued to be so in imaginative ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. Curate, the Revd Jack Branford, tells us more.

Practical care for the parish

We had a pre-planned meeting of Aylsham PCC on the same evening that social distancing measures were first announced back in the middle of March. We discussed that evening the potentially huge pastoral implications this would have on our community, and so we decided to do something straight away.

The morning after, we launched the Aylsham Coronavirus Community Helpline pulling together various community organisations (Aylsham Town Council, Aylsham Care Trust, Aylsham Community First Responders, Aylsham Churches Together) who already had a network of volunteers they could call upon.

We had the number printed in the local magazine which was delivered to every house in the town that week, as well as spreading the word online. We encouraged those who were self-isolating to ring the helpline if they needed: a friendly phone call, mail posted, or urgent food or medicine supplies.

The number has received nearly a thousand calls to date, and – with our brilliant community partners – we have been able to deliver hundreds of prescriptions, food shops and Foodbank parcels since launch day. We have also received a small but steady number of pastoral calls to the line: from those who just need a chat, to help with getting to the hospital to have a baby!

One self-isolating resident responded: “Thank you so much. It is so good to know someone is there for us.”

It quickly became clear through speaking to our local schools, that one of the main developing needs in our community was that families were struggling for food, partly because of the sudden closure of schools and then, through the subsequent delay of the food voucher scheme. We took the decision to pioneer Foodbank deliveries in North Norfolk through the helpline; a scheme that was used a great deal, particularly in the first few weeks of lockdown.

From phone box to food box

We felt that we could do more, and we had purchased an old red phone box a few months before to use as some sort of community facility. We came up with the idea of converting the phone box into a Community Larder. We contacted our friends at Blickling Hall who were happy to build some shelves and provide the larder with fresh produce from their gardens.

The project was launched online, inviting anyone in our parishes to take what they need or donate what they could. The Community Larder seems to have been received very well – our social media posts have ‘gone viral’, being shared hundreds of times, reaching tens of thousands of people. More importantly, the facility is being well used. Every few days the entire contents of the larder change through the constant flurry of donations and withdrawals.

“Thank you to the minds that brought it together; it’s a fantastic idea, such a good re-purposing, and perfectly placed at the junction of community, church and National Trust. The rhubarb has been much appreciated in my house: rhubarb crumble and a rhubarb and custard tart!”

An enthusiastic response from another local resident was: “Oh my goodness that’s like a dream come true! Not for me but for hope for humanity-led communities. Aylsham Parish Church is the real deal.”

Practical care for the congregation

As well as caring for the wider community, we have also been trying our best to make sure everyone in the congregation has contact with at least someone from the church community on a regular basis. Much of this has been happening through phone calls and I’ve heard lots of lovely feedback from people who are having deep conversations and building great friendships. It has been particularly lovely to see the heart-warming pastoral instincts of our congregation for those who are unwell.

Prayer and worship – online

With churches all over the world, our services have gone online. We have been broadcasting a service every Sunday morning on our Facebook page and website, and with the other churches in our team, we also managed to produced a service for every day in Holy Week – with some stunning reflections from Revd Corin Child (Chaplain at Norwich School).

Encouragingly, like many other churches, we seem to be experiencing considerable growth in our online congregation – we estimate that typically twice as many people are participating in our online worship when it goes out live, in comparison to the numbers we usually see in church on a Sunday morning. By the time ‘catch-up’ figures are included, we are seeing between 1-2,000 people viewing at least part of the service each week, which highlights what an incredible opportunity for mission digital services are for the church.

Perhaps the most wonderful things about online worship, however, is the way it allows those who could not usually get to church to join in with worship. We strive to be a truly inclusive church and in some important ways, the move online has made this more possible.

It has been a great encouragement to know that our local nursing homes have been joining in with our Sunday morning worship, and to hear the stories of several other people who would find regular Sunday worship a struggle through a mental or physical disability but can now join in fully.

“Thank you to everyone who contributes to these lovely services,” responded one local resident. “I can’t usually get to church and it’s so moving to be with you and all the work involved is so much appreciated.’

Over the months, many of our usual church activities have moved online; some of this is other video content like our APCM review of the year, Collect Worship/Assemblies for our local schools and children’s craft activities. Much of our online content also revolves around Zoom, which has proved a useful tool for online coffee mornings, Bible study groups, and even PCC meetings.

I must admit that we have experienced our fair share of technical difficulties along the way. The broadband speeds in our home are not great and it hasn’t been terribly easy to produce worship in a Curate’s house, with no study and two small children but God is good and has honoured whatever we have been able to do.

Prayer and worship – by post/email

We have also been posting out prayer resources and sermons so we can be as inclusive as possible, making sure those who do not have access to the internet can share in our worship from their own homes.

Our reflective prayer and silent prayer groups time have also been able to continue through posted resources. With people simultaneously joining in with times of meditative prayer wherever they are.

Symbols of hope

The church is, by definition, a people of hope. Perhaps, the most important role our church has tried to play throughout the past few weeks is to bring a little bit of joy and hope to our community. We have attempted to do this in lots of little ways: by giving out Easter Eggs and free family craft packs to brighten the lives of young families in our town; by lighting candles of hope in our windows on a Sunday evening; by ringing the church bell when praying for our community so they know they are not alone and they are prayed for (when safe and permitted to do so); by illuminating the church tower in blue to thank our key workers; by giving chocolates and lovely knitted creations to volunteers and others in our communities who are making such a difference at this time.

One local Mum of three who received one of our craft packs said: “Thank you so much this has made our week.”

These may only be small, symbolic things, but as we who share bread and wine know, small symbols of hope can make a big difference.

Looking ahead

We are learning so much through all of this. Clearly online worship is here to stay and even when we return to our church buildings I am confident that we will continue to broadcast online Sunday by Sunday, rejoicing in the fact that those who cannot make it to the building, and those who would not have otherwise thought to, will be joining us.

I think as a church locally and nationally we will have to ask ourselves why so many more people feel comfortable joining us online, and no doubt, this will continue to raise theological and practical questions in the future about how we do many things from meetings to sharing the sacraments.

There is much to think about and lots of encouraging signs to build upon. In years to come, we may very well look back on this time as a great turning point in the history of the church in our community and nation.