‘Exile’ in Raveningham and Waveney

The churches in the Raveningham and Waveney benefices have worked to navigate the world of church in lockdown while keeping as many people included as possible. The Revd David Smith explains.

The coronavirus lockdown came just two Sundays after my Licensing in two benefices here in South East Norfolk and so it’s all been quite a start..!

The time immediately prior to lockdown gave me valuable days to meet as many of our church communities, school teachers, shop and pub owners (and frequenters – including me!) as possible, as well as many people in the communities, so when lockdown came I could have familiar contact via email and telephone and socially-distanced walks up and down our village street to check on people from the middle of the road! Our churches were quick in liaising with our parish councils and offering assistance in any whichever way we could. In particular, in my home village of Geldeston, we were able within the first week to work together in stocking the village hall as a local food bank for supplies to our vulnerable people. We also set up the Geldeston Community Support telephone number through a local company called SwitchboardFree as well as the Geldeston Mutual Aid WhatsApp group which was vital in those early days to co-ordinate shopping rotas and picking up prescriptions. It’s been a great privilege to share with other church members around our benefice in being volunteers to help those who have been vulnerable or self-isolating with shopping and other necessities.

Resourcing the home – prayers, technology and ‘Waveney Valley Sunday’..!

Our church communities are small but with big hearts, and when lockdown came it affected everyone deeply from a spiritual point of view; many of our churches are life-line social spaces for the elderly and vulnerable but it was a lifeline suddenly lost – some of those people, including some of our church stalwarts, are also not online. I was concerned that they might feel left behind or abandoned if we opted for online services – quite apart from the fact that none of our churches have internet connection and phone signal is poor – and that unity would be compromised if some people were prevented from engaging with experiences that others were enjoying. We ensured that all our church community households were provided with daily and weekly prayer and worship materials, including liturgies, bible readings and a bespoke ‘Breaking of Bread at Home’ liturgy – a ‘memorial meal’ as a next-best thing to Holy Communion. Every household also received a reflection or sermon for the first two or three Sundays. Realising the importance of communication of resources and news to church and community, we also in that first week – for the first time – created our own new Facebook page as well as doing a lot of work in getting our ‘A Church Near You’ pages looking inviting and up to date.

I was inspired, however, by the example set by Cromer Parish Church in creating a podcast which could also be accessed by telephone, and this to me seemed like a perfect fit for our context here. With the excellent assistance of Cromer’s Simon Fenn, in the middle of March (just a week after the Diocese, in fact!) we were able to launch our first podcast via the host website Buzzsprout and also via phone, which we called ‘Waveney Valley Sunday’ and it continues today. It includes all of our local news and notices, updates on church guidance as well as bible readings, a sermon and also prayers of intercession recorded in one of our churches – a different one each week. The joy of the podcast is that it has been easy to record, edit and produce – I do it all here in the Rectory and also (now) in church – and it doesn’t take too long, ensuring that other areas of ministry are not compromised. We have a regular core of many listeners both online and by phone, and, indeed, including people who are not regular churchgoers – as well as listeners as far away as Bermuda – but any listeners beyond our locality are a joyous bonus. I’m just delighted that everyone locally is able to tune in with no-one missing out. People have said how much they feel that ‘church has come to them’ or that it feels like a ‘church experience’ and they feel a sense of connectedness with others who are listening. This has also been enhanced by regular prayer gatherings on Zoom.

Going forward, I can see the podcast expand perhaps into a magazine-style weekly ‘church programme’ – a weekly jaunt around the benefices – to include interviews of local people about their life, work and faith, Christian reflection on the matters of the day as well as giving people a taste of life around them in their communities in addition to prayers and sermons. My sense is that such a production will be a vital additional mission tool for anyone who might be interested in what the local church is up to or what Christian discipleship and witness means and looks like.

Prayers and reflections for schools

Technology has also played a vital role in supporting our local schools – we have four schools across our two benefices, including two Church of England schools. Working with the schools and their curricula, we’ve been able to enhance the vital and ongoing regular contact with school heads and staff with weekly collective worship videos which schools and parents alike seem to appreciate (although my children say that they don’t want to watch Daddy on telly – I don’t blame them..!). This, alongside the headteacher’s own weekly collective worship videos, has enhanced the children’s sense that they are maintaining an ongoing familiar pattern from their once-normal school day as well as giving them and their parents reassurance, encouragement, pastoral support and a silly vicar to laugh at!

Looking ahead – return from ‘exile’

Lockdown and forced distance from our traditional or habitual places of worship as well as our families and friends has felt rather like exile – a word which has been shared more than once with me – and I think it’s very important, just like the remnant in Babylon, that our church communities in our benefice are able to engage in a shared experience of ‘singing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. Exile, I believe, is an experience to be embraced and learned from, rather than a state to avoid or work around. God can teach us a great deal about ourselves through it, just as he did for those thrust into exile in Babylon all those years before us.

Local conversations have highlighted a hunger and desire in people to want to return to Jerusalem from exile, so to speak – people are missing the authenticity and physical interaction with one another in the context of prayer, worship and socialising as God’s gathered people – but we appreciate that the return will be very different from the church and landscape we first left. Indeed, Jesus said that a day would come when we would worship neither on hill nor Jerusalem and so we must be ready for all that God wants to show us. The ‘bright lights of Babylon’ that are online live streaming and podcasts are inviting, exciting and useful – gifts from God for the people of God in exile – but we realise that these will not form the entirety of what the new Jerusalem (or elsewhere) will or should look like when we finally go back. We are perhaps called to rebuild to a new design whilst including the features of the old – as an architecture enthusiast, I always find that those buildings which incorporate old into new are often the most stunning and attractive – one highlights the beauty of the other. God always intended a temple as the central focus for the offerings and devotions, the prayers and the worship, of his gathered people in response to his love and it is the tangible focus of the temple – the local church – that so many of our benefice here are missing very deeply.

There is much to reflect on in our benefices for the future, but with the shared desire for, and love of, God as well as a close community spirit and desire to work wholeheartedly for one another, I believe there is much that can be celebrated and taken forward from the past once lockdown is lifted, and much that is new and exciting to bring along with us too. God is very much at work here, and, just like the remnant in Babylon, we are taking time to discern what it is he is showing us as we reflect on our past, and seeking what he wants us most to learn about ourselves and about his kingdom priorities as we envision and anticipate the future.