As restrictions have started to ease around the Synod, Uniting Churches are resuming in-person gathering.

Uniting Churches need to come up with a detailed plan for any in-person meetings, explaining how they intend to ensure adequate social distancing, the distribution of hand sanitiser, and the recording of attendance.

The requirements are more stringent than the guidelines laid out by the NSW state government, which leadership has suggested is necessary to ensure that there is no spreading of the virus.

Insights spoke to a number of congregations to find out their plans for returning to face to face worship.

Rev. Phil Swain is Minister of the Word at Turramurra Uniting Church.  

Rev. Swain said that there had been a “learning curve” as those involved in the church’s worship had to “think differently.”

“We had a number of people who were very keen to reopen, but some who were very cautious,” he recalled.

“Church Council felt that for our two main worship services, the hybrid model of worship was the best solution because it allowed people to decide which format of worship that they  are comfortable participating in knowing that their experience would be the same in both the online and in-person formats.”

Turramurra Uniting Church has not yet reopened its traditional worship service, as the average age of this congregation is over 80, he said.

“It is tricky because we want to keep them safe but as one of them explained, “I know we are in the risky category but we are willing to take that risk.  We just want to come back to church”.   We still have not made a decision on reopening this service yet.”

Turramurra Uniting Church has embraced a hybrid worship model, where people join for worship, both in-person and online.

Rev. Swain said that the results of who opted to attend in person versus who streamed the service was interesting.

“In our 9 am worship service (which we usually have about 100 or so people at), in the two services so far we have had about 35 people come to the church to worship in person and averaging a live count of 65 connections online (which we think is about 80 people),” he said.

“So about 1/3 are comfortable coming to worship in person while 2/3 are continuing watching online.  Those in-person have found the “no singing” rule quite hard as they just want to sing and having no morning tea just goes against all our understanding of hospitality.  We have had to be flexible with our volunteers (as some of them are not ready to come back yet) but it seems to be working out.”   

“Those who are online have really appreciated the effort that we have put in to make sure the visuals are high quality and say they continue to have the sense of gathering together with the whole church and feel welcomed, acknowledged, included and loved.”

In Sydney’s inner west, Rockdale Uniting Church has been meeting in-person.

Rev. Martin Goodwin told Insights that the church has resumed worship services, “Though very limited and very much curtailed by Church guidelines and health and safety best practices.”

“Our Church Council got together via Zoom several weeks ago and decided to have practice church, where members of the Church Council and I would have “Claytons” Church,” he said.

“We did this for a number of weeks – practising how we might greet and prepare people for worship.”

“We provide masks and take names. If we feel someone is not well we take their temperature. Worship is rather subdued and only 40 are allowed into the space (though in the two weeks we have been having church we have only had twenty people attend.”

Rev. Goodwin recalled that it had been challenging at points, such as when he has needed to stop worship to remind someone to remember their mask.

“I have members who are not technologically minded – we have tried to keep all of our members in touch and “connected” by email and phone – but even so, some have slipped through the cracks. When the church finally comes out of the bunker – what will it see – how will it respond? There are all sorts of Zoom seminars provided by the Synod to help with this crisis – but I am not certain how effective they will ultimately be.”

As the situation continues to change, and with Victoria recently undertaking a second state-wide lockdown, the situation may change again.

Rev. Goodwin said that Rockdale’s congregation would continue closely watching the situation.

In the centre of the Blue Mountains, Springwood Uniting Church has continued to deliver online services. According to one of their ministers, Rev. Leigh Gardiner, the fact that a high proportion of the church’s congregation is in the high-risk category ensures that they are “not rushing to re-open for church services.” With the church not yet connected to the NBN, a hybrid-style service is not yet possible.

Despite this, Rev. Gardiner said that Springwood Uniting Church had been encouraged by the take up of technology.

“Small groups are beginning to recommence but mostly online,” she said.

“We have been having a Zoom games night to replace our monthly Messy Church and seek to work on that.”

According to Rev. Gardiner, Springwood Uniting Church conducted a survey of their membership. Results, “told us that 86% watch our service online at our normal service time of 9.30 each Sunday. Very few catch up later.  This tells us that it will be important for us to Livestream when we do physically re-gather.”

Springwood Uniting Church is considering when to re-open for in-person services, but will need to consider this if the situation changes in NSW.

In the Central West, Blayney Uniting Church has resumed worship. For Blayney’s congregation, it has been a welcome decision, as they did not hold any online services during lockdown.

Peter Wicks told Insights that Blayney’s congregation had long been anticipating the chance to resume in-person worship.

“The looks on people’s faces on the first worship day told a story – relief; joy,” he said.

“That said, there is a touch of surrealism in worship that has no congregational singing; no passing the piece; no Holy Communion (or at least no distribution of bread and wine) Given the importance of music to Blayney congregation our worship leaders are ensuring music continues to be a part of worship each week.”

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane is Presbytery Minister for Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery. He recently preached at one of Blayney’s service, their second since recommencing in-person worship.

“As a congregation who hadn’t been worshipping online, there was a strong sense of reunion,” he said.

“However, there is a bitter-sweet element to this as so much that would normally be part of the worship gathering was missing: singing, shaking hands, sharing in morning tea. We also reflected on the bereavements that some members have experienced during the pandemic shut-down, and the added sadness of not being able to have full gatherings for funerals during that time.”

“Nevertheless, the congregation has held together well through strong pastoral care throughout the week over the months.”

Looking to the future, Rev. Goodwin expressed concern that the church had “withdrawn” during the pandemic.

“I try to think about this situation theologically and historically,” he said.

“I have reflected on the church’s responses to previous pandemics and other moments of national and international crisis. What can we learn from them?”

“One thing I am aware of is that Christians out of deep concern for their communities – risked their own lives to help the sick, the orphaned and the hungry. It seems that the only response we as a church has had is to isolate to protect the community. But is this leading us to withdraw from our communities? Why is it that Coles workers are considered “Front-line” troops in responding to this crisis and Churches aren’t?”

“Has the churches closing down had any effect on our society? What does it say about our interaction with our community that no one seems to have felt the loss except for our church members.”

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