Being a Godsend in Barnham Broom and Upper Yare
"We are fortunate to serve a group of parishes who are already very good at looking after each other, but the unprecedented circumstances of the lockdown have brought out the best in all of our communities," says Rector Revd Dr Timothy Weatherstone and Curate Revd Dr Louisa Pittman.
Since the first day the lockdown was announced, we’ve continued to be impressed and grateful for how generously and capably everyone in our area has responded.
Keeping in touch
Our first response to the stay at home announcement was to start contacting people to check in on individual circumstances, ascertain needs, and find out what support was already in place. We did this initially by simply phoning around to individual households, and we were pleased to find that everyone we contacted, especially the ones about whom we were most concerned, already had some form of network in place to support them over the coming weeks. Villages, hamlets, even individual streets have come up with varied and innovative ways to keep in touch with each other and meet needs by using social media, regular phone calls and doorstep visits.
Many of the individuals who have been actively involved in these networks are also the churchwardens, PCC members, and other key people who are at the heart of the life of our 15 parish churches. It became clear to us within the first week or so that the best way we as clergy could serve our benefice in these circumstances was not to set up new networks but to work with these existing networks by providing encouragement, support, and a kind of “hub” through which our many wide-spread communities could keep in touch.
We decided that we would do this through several channels: providing spiritual nourishment by taking our services, home groups, and other church activities online to be able to reach the majority of households; providing pastoral care through regular calling and messaging, especially to those most affected by the anxiety, isolation, or confusion brought on by the restrictions; and offering practical help as needed, ranging from picking up prescriptions to over-the-phone IT support for those finding their way through new technology.
Our best existing form of communication accessible to everyone in the group is our monthly Group magazine, which is usually hand-delivered by a large group of volunteers to all 1,500+ households in the benefice. This magazine is one of the main sources of community news and information and was going to print just as the lockdown was announced, but we were still able to distribute the majority of them by switching to leaving them in central locations, primarily in our church porches, to be picked up once the churchwardens notified the people in their villages that they were available.
Embracing online worship
As with most clergy, one of our most daunting but immediate tasks, once we had made sure the support networks were working well, was to research the technology and decide what form of virtual platform would be most helpful in bringing the worship and study we normally offer to as many of our households as possible. Though there are still a few without any form of internet, we discovered that the vast majority had some form of online connection and responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that we live stream services and host video chats for studies and social gatherings.
We were able, without even missing a beat, to switch our daily Morning Prayer gatherings and Sunday services to streaming from our individual houses on Facebook Live, and to switch to Zoom for group sessions which have proved very popular.
The Rector is leading a home group study session every other week, which has come out of the sessions he used to lead monthly, and the Curate has started up a weekly virtual coffee hour, both of which have resulted in increased numbers joining in and very positive comments.
We’ve even expanded on our usual services by adding Compline four nights a week led by our Reader-in-training. Of course, this technology has also allowed the clergy to carry on with other community roles by participating in meetings of groups such as school governors and charity trusts.
Adapting for all
We have been conscious throughout of offering as much as we can to those without internet or with poor connectivity, a problem more common in this rural area than having no internet at all. To that end, all of our services are recorded and saved to our webpage for downloading and viewing later by those with slow internet speeds. The Curate also created a way for the Facebook stream to be viewed live on the webpage for those who wished to avoid using the Facebook platform or found it difficult to navigate. For those without the internet, we have kept them informed of the information needed to phone into our Zoom sessions, though to date no one has tried this option.
Like many around the diocese, we have been greatly encouraged by the growing numbers who have been engaging with our online offerings. Sunday services are routinely attended online by as many as we would normally see at our monthly Benefice services. Daily Offices and home groups likewise have seen steady participation by far more people than we would usually see in person. What has been most pleasing is to hear from a few who have been hesitant to come to a church service in person for the first time, but have tuned in to our online service and now feel that they would be welcomed and made to feel at home once we are able to gather in person once more.
Moving forward, we’ve realised that the necessary changes we’ve made to how we reach our communities and lead worship and group gatherings have expanded what we can offer our benefice once we return to the ‘new normal’. Now that such a large portion of our parishioners are comfortable with the technological means we’ve adopted in the lockdown, we have the possibility of using these means to continue to connect with a wider community. We can continue to live stream our services for those who are housebound or otherwise unable to join us in person, and virtual meetings might be considered a better option, for instance, for a group of trustees who would otherwise be driving on a winter’s night.
We have both been encouraged in all of this and are hugely grateful for the generous and positive feedback we continue to receive from people across the Group, so we will finish with a testimony from one of our PCC members: “As a 74-year-old asthmatic, apart from either cycling or walking for my daily exercise, I don’t leave the house, so as you may imagine, for me, these Church group events are literally a Godsend and I am hugely grateful for Tim’s and Louisa’s continuing ministrations – I feel very blessed!”