OPINION: Churches have worked hard in lockdown supporting people of all faiths and none - The Dean of Ripon
A couple of months ago, the Prime Minister said, “I’ve lost count of the number of church leaders and congregations from all denominations that have stepped up to support not only one another but also to support the whole local community, people of all faiths and none.”
This comment was welcome following some misleading suggestions that the churches, by closing their doors in the first lockdown, had turned their backs on the communities they were there to serve. As many local and regional papers helped people to realise, throughout last year and in the first months of this, churches have been working hard to sustain mission and ministry, offering prayer and serving their communities in practical ways.
And, of course, in closing its church doors, the church was seeking to play its part in protecting the health of the nation and the NHS.
Even so, cathedrals and churches also make an invaluable contribution to the wellbeing of society by opening wide their doors and making their buildings available. This has been confirmed by research done recently by The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture within the University of York. Their report is entitled ‘Churches, Covid-19, and Communities: Experiences, Needs, and Supporting Recovery.’ It begins with that quote from the Prime Minister.
Initiated last summer and prompted by the shock that church buildings were closed at a time of crisis and need, the report describes the many ways in which church communities and their buildings normally support the wellbeing of society. It then explores how, affected by the pandemic themselves, churches managed to respond and sustain their mission in remarkable ways.
It will not surprise many of us to learn that the report reveals that there was great imagination, ingenuity, and success in sustaining ministry. It gives examples in three broad areas: social care; well-being, place making and heritage; and support for people suffering grief and loss. And it comes to the helpful conclusion, ‘Keeping churches open and maintaining their contribution to wellbeing, community cohesion, social care, and heritage tourism, is vital for both emergency support and long-term recovery.’
It seems appropriate to be considering this report in these days between Ascension Day (40 days after Easter Day when we remember how Jesus departed physically from his followers) and Pentecost (50 days after Easter, this coming Sunday, when we celebrate how the Holy Spirit came in a dramatic and powerful way upon the disciples). We often regard Pentecost as the birthday of the church.
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus warned his disciples that he would need to leave them, but that he would send the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide them into all truth. He explained that as God had sent him into the world, so he was now sending his disciples. In the power of the Spirit, they would be the ones who carried on his work of helping this world to become more like the kingdom of God. It seems clear to me that the findings of The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture show that the church is still doing this in many ways, not least through practical service and by making its buildings available to the wider community.
But in my experience, the wellbeing of society is served best when people and organisations come together in partnership. That is why the work of bodies like Ripon Together, which I am privileged to chair, are so important, uniting different parts of the community (public, private, voluntary, and faith) to work together for the benefit of all. Last week’s Ripon Gazette reported on our plans to provide a summer of games for children and young people.
A short film is being produced showing how Ripon Cathedral (through its Cathedral Community Connections group) is one of many groups which have been working hard together to support people in Ripon and the surrounding area through the pandemic. This has been funded by the cathedral and by Harrogate Borough Council. For me, it shows that the Spirit of God is not just present and active in the life of Christ’s Church, but also in the goodness, kindness and generosity shown by many of God’s children - of different faiths and none. This gives hope and is certainly worth celebrating at Pentecost.