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It won’t be a silent night, but it will be quieter than usual. Churches holding services over Christmas are restricting numbers – and congregations will be barred from joining in to sing carols.
Many churches have opted for online-only services to avoid having to turn people away as tickets for midnight mass and Christmas Day services have been snapped up.
At a time when nifty adaptation is demanded of all, even Pope Francis’s midnight mass in St Peter’s Square will begin at 7.30pm to comply with Italy’s Covid curfew.
For churches – like pubs and supermarkets – Christmas is the peak time for getting people through their doors. In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, 2.42 million people attended Church of England services over Christmas, with millions also taking part in Advent and school services. On a normal Sunday in 2018, 703,000 people (1.26% of the population) attended a C of E church.
This year, churches closed during the first national lockdown, and services were prohibited during the second. Now, congregational worship is permitted in all three tiers of Covid restrictions, but with numbers strictly limited and other constraints in force.
In London, tickets for services at St Paul’s and Southwark cathedrals and Westminster Abbey went within days. But even small village churches are requiring people to pre-book places so seating can be arranged in socially distanced bubbles.
At St Petroc’s, a Norman church in South Brent on the edge of Dartmoor, only a handful of seats were still available for Christmas Eve holy communion early this week.
“Normally, our traditional carol services would be packed to the gunnels,” said vicar Gina Radford, who was deputy chief medical officer for England until last year.
St Petroc’s and its sister church St Mary’s decided that, if people could not come to church, “we will take church to them”, Radford said. On 17 December, the churches held a traditional children’s nativity service in a large barn on a local petting farm, in the presence of pygmy goats, pot-bellied piglets and a retired Household Cavalry horse.
“I would never have thought of this without Covid, and it’s attracting people who would not normally come to church. It’s sure to be beautiful chaos, and I expect we will be totally upstaged by the animals,” said Radford before the event.
In Brighton, just 70 people attended St Mary’s traditional service of nine lessons and carols on 13 December in a church built to hold 1,000.
“We probably could have got to 100, but we wanted to keep everyone safe,” said the vicar, Andrew Woodward. A local choral society joined the church choir to sing carols, with the congregation mute behind their masks. “It was certainly different, but it was a beautiful atmosphere.”
This Christmas will be “very strange for a church that loves to throw open its doors and welcome every single soul”, said Heston Groenewald, the vicar of All Hallows in Leeds.
The church is streaming all its services online, with only a handful of worshippers physically present, who will have to “bite their tongues” not to join in with a trio of carol singers.
On 13 December, All Hallows held an online carol service “with everyone singing along merrily – on mute. Communal singing on Zoom is a horrible cacophony,” said Groenewald.
The All Hallows community cafe, Rainbow Junk-tion, which usually provides pay-what-you-can meals made from donated and surplus food, has turned into a food bank during the pandemic.
“Our festive food bank will be open on Christmas Day to provide hot takeaway meals. The generosity and love of our volunteers providing comfort and joy in the Christmas season is inspirational,” said Groenewald.
St Mary’s in Brighton will also be serving a takeaway hot Christmas lunch for anyone who wants it, said Woodward. “I’m guessing 70, but catering for 100.”
The pandemic had exerted a “hard toll on many people”, said Radford. “But sometimes out of challenging situations come amazing opportunities. We’ve seen a rediscovery of community and relationships, and countless small acts of kindness.”
A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “Churches and cathedrals across England would normally welcome around six million people at Advent and Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
“In reducing our capacity this year to ensure everyone is as safe as possible, we are adapting in various ways. Ticketing, extra services, streaming and special online-only services will ensure as many people as possible can share in the comfort and joy of Christmas worship.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Churches rethink Christmas services and carol singing due to Covid | Religion