In the third instalment of this blog series, we will be exploring communities of faith in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. We will hear from my own dad, Richard Young – a Lay Minister at St Mary the Virgin Church in Witney, Oxfordshire, about the church’s response to the crisis. At the Young Foundation, we understand how churches and other faith institutions continue to play a vital role in promoting healthy communities across the UK. Here, Richard talks about how the church has rallied to support the local community and shifted its role as a social hub to being a virtual one as a result of the pandemic.
Isabel: So Dad, tell me, what is the main way that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you and your community?
Richard: Well, it shattered a sense of physical community. We’ve all been driven into our own homes and we’re all feeling a sense of isolation that is increasing over time… The church has been serving the community since 1243, but usually we do this through our services, outreach and events, such as our annual food, flower and beer festivals which bring the community together. Now this is all gone, and we’ve had to rethink our role as a social hub in the community as being virtual.
Isabel: What is the main way you and your community have responded to the crisis?
Richard: We’ve responded in 5 main ways. The first was to move all of our services online. We host live services over Zoom and also offer pre-recorded services on YouTube. Another thing we did was to identify all of the vulnerable members of the community that we have the contact details of, such as those who usually attend our senior citizens’ lunch and created a rota where we call all of those 500 people once a week. Each person is assigned two callers, so that they hear a variety of voices and can connect with more than one person. Not only does this help to support those who are most isolated and vulnerable, but it has given us an opportunity to get to know people we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to speak to at our usual services. We also have a Zoom party every week where people entertain one another. These are fun and bring us all a much-needed sense of relief.
We have also linked up with external organisations locally, such as the Witney Land Army, to signal need and signpost them to members of the community who need support. With the closure of our local food bank due to Covid-19, it is particularly important that we connect with available local resources. These 5 steps have made up our immediate plan. The next stage will be working together on a long term 6-month plan.
Isabel: What for you, is the importance of online platforms at this time?
Well, the only silver lining, if there is one, is in this sense of shared digital community where we talk to each other by phone and over email. But in particular, by video conferencing. For me that’s been the surprise, that rather than these occasional fixed Sunday meetings with individuals, you now have impromptu discussions online and you’re getting to know people better… We’ve found our online services to be really popular and have observed a larger congregation than normal! The virtual community has been a godsend. And a lifesaver.
Isabel: Do you feel the way we act in our communities will be forever altered by the COVID-19 crisis, and if so, how?
Richard: I think one of the ideas of our age is individualism, that one person is an island unto themselves, but that’s not true. You even hear people in the cabinet saying, ‘there is such a thing as society’. I think it’s a wakeup call that we are in this together. We are in the same boat. The actions of one ripple across all of society. I think that will very much be at the front of people’s minds in the years to come. We ended the First World War saying that was the war to end all wars, and yet. Let’s hope this time we don’t have too rapid an onset of amnesia.
In terms of the church, I think it’s too early to say, but the new virtual community is certainly not going to replace things, simply complement them. What has been interesting is the way that it has strengthened relationships. We have seen society come together around a need, and people connecting with other people they wouldn’t normally talk to. Like many churches in the area, and across the UK, we are making use of social media to maintain and sustain a sense of community because at St. Mary’s, we are called to be a community of mercy and kindness.
Isabel: What is your message to communities across the UK who are new to organising and want to come together to address this issue?
My first port of call would be to go onto the web. Do a search and find out what’s working…There’s a lot of learning going on. There’s some little trips and traps to avoid, but actually it’s relatively simple to connect digitally. And those of us who are more digitally-savvy have a responsibility to support those who are less so, to recreate their communities online. In terms of our faith community, I can’t really see much difference in our approach to the approaches that different faiths are taking. We’ve all got the same shared ambition to love our neighbour and to serve our community. And we’re all looking for ways to do this. The digital environment is a very neutral one for that.
Richard is a Lay Minister at St Mary’s the Virgin Church, part of the Benefice of Witney, in Oxfordshire. To find out more about the church’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit their website.
Join us next Wednesday for Part 4! To take part in our Community, Covid & You research project, click here. You can find out more about any of the initiatives featured in this blog by following the series or by contacting Isabel.email@example.com