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St John’s Southgate

09 Jun 2020

Shutting down is easy. Opening up is hard

By Tom Hoffmann - Pastor

That’s something that has become abundantly clear to me as we, at St Johns, have started planning to reopen the church for public worship.

Closing the doors in response to the COVID-19 crisis and resorting to livestream worship on YouTube seemed complicated at the time, but it’s nothing compared to opening the doors to a new normal.

We, like many places of worship, are going to have to do things very differently in the interests of public health and safety – things like limiting the number of worshippers per service; insisting on hand sanitising upon entrance; disallowing handshaking and hugging; keeping an attendance register for contact tracing; arranging socially-distant worship seating, cancelling our much-loved morning teas, and so on.

On the face of it, these things might seem only a matter of logistics. But there’s more to it than that, particularly when one starts to think about Holy Communion, which is one of the most profound elements of Christian worship.

Holy Communion is, like it sounds, about communing with one another. It’s about community and intimacy, with God and with each other. In times gone by, we would kneel together, shoulder to shoulder before the altar, as the pastor would (with his bare hands!) give us a morsel of bread to eat, followed by each of us drinking a sip of wine (from the same cup!), all the while being close enough for sacred words to be uttered at a whisper’s volume. In a very real sense, participating in Holy Communion forms us into the community that we at St Johns hope for, pray for, and strive to be. So, if this ritual is performed at a distance, and administered by a pastor wearing gloves and a mask, one has to ask if it’s really communion at all?

The ways in which Christian worship will change have the potential to leave churchgoers feeling empty, unsatisfied, demoralised – like a once arranged bunch of flowers plucked from the sustaining waters of their vase and flung to the various corners of the room to fade, separately but in unison, on the floor.

For the faithful, this is more than a matter of hygiene and safety. These matters strike at the heart of our very identity. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was someone who touched lepers, and who used his own spit, believe it or not, in acts of compassionate healing! Being disciples of Jesus has never been a sanitary endeavour. It is supposed to be about opening the door to the stranger, breaking bread together, crying on one another’s shoulders and holding the hands of the sick and dying. But in this moment, we have to acknowledge that the compassionate and loving thing to do is to maintain distance and sterility. What we can and must do, is to retain some sense of welcome, warmth and community – even if our communion feels less than holy for a time.

Yes, closing down was the easy part. Opening up will be the real challenge. It will be difficult for members of our congregation who will need to recalibrate their expectations of how their spiritual lives are expressed. And I expect it will be a little awkward for visitors walking into a church of the new normal. But as we do open up, be assured that not just our doors, but our hearts and minds will be open to you, even if our worship might initially look unwelcoming compared to what one might have previously expected from St Johns. Our communion, and community will look changed, but it will retain its holiness, because the promise of Jesus’s presence remains. That we can be certain of, even in uncertain times •

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