St Francis of Assisi, Petts Wood

For it is in giving that we receive.

Father Stephens updates

Dear Church Member,

                                   As you know Bishop Simon has recently issued some new guidance on church activities. The document was, I believe, devised by the College of Bishops for dissemination across the country. The document thankfully, is part of the ‘first phase’ of lifting restrictions, reverses the previous prohibition on streaming services in church and priests entering their churches, and issues further guidance/instruction on the second and third phases. I say ‘guidance/instruction’ because despite Archbishop Justin being publically challenged on this point, it is still not clear which it is intended to be.  

At present clergy are not supposed to open the church for ‘ceremonies like weddings and funerals’, or lay private prayer,(although they may be permitted to do so in ‘phase two’).  In my view health and safety issues for these circumstances are easily manageable and I am now intending to use the church for some of these purposes as outlined below. In taking this step contrary to guidance/instruction, I feel it necessary to take you through my reasons for doing so. Please therefore bear with me through the missive which follows.

At the start of the lock-down, priests going into their churches and streaming services from them was confirmed as being within government guidelines, and indeed a number of denominations including the Roman Catholic and  URC churches continued to do just that. I personally continued to say the Offices daily in church. I also streamed Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament,  and would have gone further in streaming live services were it not that some members of our congregation would have been troubled by this. I was not alone in my opposition to the Bishops’ measures. For example a letter from a large number of clergy and lay people to The Times argued against. This may have played a part in the Bishops relenting (somewhat) last week to allow streaming from churches. Certainly the change in their position had nothing to do with changes in risk or new government guidelines, which though anticipated, had not at that time been announced. 

Personally I have always rejoiced in having such a capable, and devout Bishop as Bishop James. But in my view his issuing of directive prohibitions, then further backed up with the threat of disciplinary action for non-compliance has seriously damaged the important pastoral relationship between Priests and their Bishop. (Broadly speaking, Parish clergy carry final responsibility for the temporal and spiritual affairs of their church and parish, whilst Bishops are responsible for matters of faith, doctrine and order).

The Bishops’ measures back in late March deprived the whole country of streamed worship from Churches at our major festival of the year, Easter. At a time when the national Church could and should have been a symbol of hope and responsible courage, it effectively went to hide in the dining room (or in the Archbishop’s case- his kitchen). The Bishops have relented late on some of these points,  but in my view have still not gone far enough. They  are still unnecessarily depriving congregations and the public alike of important parts of their spiritual lives.

I have twice tried to raise these concerns with  Bishop James via our Archdeacon Paul Wright. I believe in each case Fr. Paul took my concerns to the Bishops’ staff meeting, but on neither occasion did I receive a reply. I can only conclude that Bishop James is unwilling to enter into discussion about this, and with regret I feel I must now use my own judgement in relation to St Francis. 

Funerals

The Diocese’s latest guidance/instruction maintains a prohibition on funerals in church. This is not only unnecessary; it is one of the cruellest aspects of the current scene. There is absolutely no reason why we should not conduct funerals in church with limited mourners to the same standard of hygiene and social distancing as in crematoria. In fact we can do it bette,r because we won’t have different gatherings every 30 minutes of the day. All the crematoria I have been to recently are running their chapel with one attendant who does everything, including music and wiping down of chairs and door handles. We can do likewise.  We can also easily separate our chairs to ensure social distancing. We have Funeral Director and Crematoria procedures and risk assessments to draw on. My initial discussions with Funeral Directors about all this were favourably received. So as of now I am communicating with them to let them know we are open for Church Funerals. I don’t expect many, but I am told this might take some of the pressure off stretched Crematorium Chapels. Hopefully none us will need a funeral soon, but if when the time comes  you were anticipating or planning one for yourself or one of your family in church, please do not change those arrangements on account of the church not being available.

Private Prayer in Church

The Bishop’s guidance now allows for me, and only me, as incumbent to enter church with members of my household as long as they are under 70. Judith is over 70 but she and I have no intention of altering our practice in this respect.

Again our Bishops are imposing more severe restrictions on us than are necessary. They are effectively declaring Garden Centres safer and more important than churches. I intend now to open the church to any member of our congregation who wishes to come in for short periods of private prayer or other justifiable reason, by appointment, and on a one to one basis. Written instructions will be given to anyone who wants to take this up, which will include washing of hands on entering and leaving the building. A record will be kept in the event of any future contact tracing being necessary. I will have to be present during such visits to make sure hygiene regulations are not accidentally breached. The church has had no one in it other than myself and Judith since the lock down began. Prior to re-opening for some form of public worship the building will  be deep cleaned as advised by the Diocese.

And Finally...

It should be apparent by now, if it wasn’t a long time ago, that exiting lock -down across society is far too diverse and complex a process to be rigidly micro-managed by the government, the Bishops or anybody else. Only so much clarity can be expected. To live sensibly, we are all going to have to fill in a lot of gaps at a local level. Each of us is in a different position with a different set of concerns and perceptions. To move forward we need to share our views, fears and wishes in an open, prayerful and respectful way. I am therefore of course inviting you to, and hoping you will, give me your responses to this as soon as you can. I append the latest Bishop’s guidance below for those of you who have not yet seen it.

With prayers, thanks and best wishes,

Fr. Stephen 

Fr Stephen Sig

Further guidance about ministers entering churches

To: Beneficed and licensed clergy, 
      Clergy with Permission to Officiate
      Licensed and authorised lay ministers
      Churchwardens
      Diocesan Staff

From: Bishop Simon Burton-Jones, Bishop of Tonbridge

 Dear Brothers and Sisters,
 
I hope you and your households are keeping well.

Thank you so much for the faith and imagination that you have each
put into the exercise of ministry through the crisis. 
Though we knew a major pandemic was always possible,
few had given any attention to its potential impact,
and yet the way you have adapted your calling has been fluid,
innovative and loving.  I, and countless others, are so appreciative. 

The ministry that lies ahead of us will be shaped by the many changes
starting to happen to the country and it is important
that we give good space to discussing these between ourselves
in the weeks and months ahead.

You will be aware that the House of Bishops met on Tuesday 5 May
to discuss the Church of England’s response to the potential
easing of restrictions.
 
Church buildings continue to remain closed for public worship,
but the House of Bishops agreed to a 
phased approach to lifting restrictions that will be in step with the
government’s approach, with each diocesan Bishop
deciding on the timing of the implementations. 

I am now able to issue guidance about the first phase
of an easing of restrictions on the use of our buildings,
which is with immediate effect:
 

  1.  Church buildings will continue to remain closed for public worship. 
  1. Incumbents, or area deans in a period of vacancy,
    may, in consultation with their churchwardens,
    appoint one person for each church in their benefice
    to enter the building. 
    They may be joined by any other members of their own household. 
  1. The appointed person should be the incumbent
    or a licensed or authorised minister, minister with PTO,
    churchwarden, worship leader or,
    where none of these are available, one member of the PCC. 
    The appointed person and any household members joining them
    should be under 70 years of age and not required to shield. 
  1. The appointed person may enter the building to:
  1. Pray the daily offices
  2. Live stream or pre-record worship
  3. Celebrate the Eucharist on behalf of the community
  4. Ring one bell from the ground floor to announce prayers being said
  5. Check the fabric of the building in the course of these duties


The person appointed
(allowing for the possible presence of members of their household)
is the only one who may do this. 
 It is not a role that can be shared with others.

Necessary precautions round hygiene should be taken
and the national Church has issued
guidance on this which can be found here.

It will also be available in due course on the Church of England website.

Please be sure to reflect on this guidance;
it relates to issues presented by each phase of the return
and step by step plans should be made to address each phase.

There may be ministers who feel uneasy about returning to their churches
 right now to accomplish any of the above. 
Please be assured that if this is how you feel,
there is no onus on you to return to church
at this point and worship can continue to be offered from home. 
This position is fully understandable.

At the same time, I know that there are many who will welcome
this first step out of lockdown.

There are two further phases we have not yet reached
but which it is helpful to set out, so we are aware. 
These phases can only be implemented sequentially
when there are changes in government restrictions.

Phase two would likely allow for some ceremonies
like weddings and funerals.  This may include the use of the building
for private prayer around bereavement and remembering. 
Social distancing and hygiene precautions would need to be taken,
necessarily impacting on numbers who may attend.

Phase three would likely allow for limited congregations to meet,
subject to social distancing and other potential restrictions.

It is inevitable that government will issue further guidance,
not least, it seems, on Sunday 10 May. 
This means the guidance I offer may also need to adapt quite quickly
to changing national plans, and this will be forthcoming where necessary. 

The most important thing is that people feel safe and are safe
in what they are doing, and that their actions contribute to the safety
and well-being of others.

There are many unexpected outcomes from major crises.
One for the Church has been the unexpected digital reach of our services. 
I would encourage those with the capacity to deliver this,
to continue to develop in creativity. 

We will be able to reflect together in time on what this means for our life
and witness in time.  Whether a church has this capacity
or not should not be a cause for regret, for we know that
‘the word of God is not chained’ (2 Timothy 2:9)
and that the Holy Spirit will be doing a lasting and graceful
work in the hearts of many. 

This is our encouragement and our hope.

In finishing, Bishop James has asked me to let you know
that he has recently developed some relatively mild symptoms
of possible Covid-19. If he does have the infection,
it may well have been contracted in the course of weekly shopping. 
He has not as yet been able to have a test
but will now be off sick for at least the next week. 

I know you will join me in praying for a good recovery,
along with prayers for so many others in our community.

If you have any queries about the guidance in this letter,
please be in touch in the first instance with your archdeacon.

The Archdeacons, Bishopscourt staff
and I will deal with these and other matters
that would otherwise go to Bishop James.


With prayers for you all.

Simon, Bishop of Tonbridge

 





As At 20th May 2020