|Building hope and sustaining a sense of community: This was seen as a key role for the Church. Revd Gina Radford said: “We are in uncharted territory. As church we must have a voice of peace and reassurance, as the one certainty we can hold onto is that God is with us and we must not lose sight of this amongst the panic.” This time is an important opportunity for the Church to connect with God’s holistic mission in the world.
Communicating factual information: The Church needs to be a trusted and reliable source of information. Church leaders need to provide accurate information with a pastoral perspective. Being rational and factual is very important in the face of uncertainty. It is important that the Church follows official advice and issues guidance that is in line with national government information, as a lack of consistency in the messages people hear leads to confusion. For global information, here is a link to COVID-19 facts update and the Coronavirus webpage from the World Health Organisation.
Following official guidance: For example, Archdeacon Wong Tak Meng shared how, in Singapore, the Church has assisted with ‘circuit breaking’, that is, slowing the spread of the virus by temporarily suspending activities for certain parts of society, so the health system can cope. For example, in Singapore all churches were asked to inform their elderly members not to attend church for 14 days and senior citizen activities have been suspended, while all efforts are made to keep in touch virtually.
Meeting for worship safely: Guidance on whether people can congregate, and in what numbers, differs from country to country and is changing rapidly. Where people are still allowed to gather, churches are implementing a range of hygiene measures and physical distancing. In places where church membership is high, more services are being introduced at different times of the week in order to reduce numbers per service and provide scope for more physical distance between worshippers. Provinces are issuing specific guidance about practices such as providing hand cleaning supplies, sharing the peace without physical contact, distributing only the bread at the Eucharist, and, in some cases, pre-screening before entering the church, etc.
Maintaining worshipping life when we can’t meet in traditional ways: In many places, mass gatherings are now banned, meaning church services cannot take place for the time being. Even where not mandated, Archdeacon Wong said, “temporary suspension of church activities might be advisable to isolate people and buy time to put in place corporate social responsibility measures such as hand sanitisation, modified liturgical practices, health screening, contact tracing and physical distancing so as to resume gatherings with a new baseline. Take time to develop alternate worship and pastoral care arrangements that will serve sustainably for 12-18 months.”
Across the Communion, people are responding creatively to suspending traditional meetings for worship, where possible using social media, recording and live streaming of services and sermons to maintain a pattern of ‘collective’ worship.
However, it was recognised that some church members, especially the elderly or those without digital access, may find it difficult to engage with this, either technologically or emotionally, so alternatives are also being sought. Ideas being tried include people sharing in a service individually at a set time with a common prayer sheet delivered, ringing the church bell to signify that people are praying at home, and gathering (where allowed) in homes in small numbers to share in a service, a Bible study or to watch a live stream or recording together.
Addressing the emotional gap: Bishop Michael Beasley, who heads up the Anglican Health Network and is a former epidemiologist, shared learning from former epidemics that is relevant to our response to COVID-19. In particular, Bishop Michael said: “We found that very good, high quality and extensive health information was being offered to the community from bodies such as the World Health Organization, but it wasn’t touching on the emotional side of how people were responding to the outbreak. There was a great deal of fear; there wasn’t much happening to build trust. What churches identified was that they could be really helpful in building trust and hope within that situation and countering fear”.
Countering misinformation: Bishop Michael also reflected on how a major feature of epidemics is the massive amount of misinformation, rumour and confusion that can circulate. This perhaps has a parallel with our situation now, looking at the ideas circulating on social media about COVID-19. The Church needs to ask itself how we can be authoritative, reliable and provide helpful and accurate sources of information.
Asked about the best way to deal with suspicion, judgment and blame, Bishop Michael advised that telling people they are wrong is not helpful. Instead, listen to people’s fears and speak the truth with authority.
Providing relevant resources: To address the situation in previous epidemics a series of bible studies has been created, which looked at fear, hope, preventing transmission and caring for affected communities and individuals. This resource is being revised for use in the current outbreak of COVID-19 and will be shared through this site shortly.
Preaching and teaching: The importance of the church’s message through preaching was emphasised by Paulo Ueti, the Anglican Alliance’s facilitator for Latin America, where the infections are increasing, as are fear and misinformation. Paulo spoke of how fear is leading to violence and xenophobia, which needs to be addressed and countered in sermons and teaching. Preaching is a key opportunity to shape attitudes and values, addressing people’s hearts and minds. In particular, it is a time: to address issues of fear, confusion, suspicion, hopelessness and blame; to build hope; and to encourage safe and appropriate care and support for the vulnerable, the sick and when someone has died. Canon Grace Kaiso, the Anglican Alliance’s senior adviser, also spoke of the need for good teaching about COVID-19 in sermons, with careful thought given to how people are interpreting it.
Providing pastoral care for people who are self-isolating: Although people might need to practise physical distancing, it is still possible to maintain close social connection through texts, emails and phone calls. People can feel very isolated, especially when media coverage of the pandemic is so extensive, so checking in on people matters. In many countries, governments are advising self-isolation measures for the elderly, so regular social activities (day centres etc) may no longer be possible. However, as discussed, there are other ways to help those in self-isolation to be supported, feel connected and continue contributing to the common life, such as being a powerhouse of prayer.
It is also the case that families staying together in isolation may face more pressure and stress in relationships, including the possibility of domestic violence. Robert Dawes, Programmes Director at Mothers’ Union, stressed the importance of being aware of these pressures on families and the need to help them develop coping strategies, support systems and help, where appropriate, in rebuilding relationships.
When the Church offers pastoral and practical care, we need to protect those who offer and receive that care from infection along with usual safeguarding measures.
Caring for the most vulnerable groups: It is vital that we think about others’ needs, not just our own, especially remembering the most vulnerable in society: such as elderly people, single parent families, the long-term sick, homeless people, migrants and refugees, those dependent on food banks, people living with mental health issues or disabilities. People with temporary and informal work will quickly fall into poverty as work places close and they lose income. Some vulnerable groups in society may already have a level of engagement and support from the church. It will be important to consider what activities can be continued, which need to be adapted and which must be postponed until the pandemic is over. There are examples of churches adapting their care activities to continue providing support, while keeping safe both those helping and those being helped. e.g. Where churches have before offered meals for the homeless, they now offer ‘take away’ meals that can be collected outside the church building. Food banks and home food deliveries for those self-isolating will be lifelines for many.
Reaching out: The Church has ‘social capital’. In some places, the Church has a very significant presence throughout society; in others it might not have the same reach but is still an important and respected voice. We can use that social capital to reach out to the wider community, many of whom are experiencing fear and anxiety at the moment.
Encouraging health workers: Archdeacon Wong from Singapore shared the example of how his diocese has reached out to health workers, some of whom have experienced negative reactions from a fearful public. The Diocese countered this narrative by giving each member of its social and medical arm – about 2000 people – a small gift of appreciation, which included a heart shaped cookie. They then decided they shouldn’t just be reaching out to Anglican health workers so have joined in a wider prayer network which organises synchronised prayer for healthcare workers and patients at noon every day. They also held a Healthcare Prayer Service in the cathedral, which was live-streamed and watched by groups across the country. The homily addressed fear and loneliness, referring to John 16 (peace overcomes troubles) and Hebrews 12 (a cloud of witnesses). The Church is providing pastoral care to health workers, giving them the opportunity to be listened to and to express their grief and stress.
Learning from wider approaches to disaster resilience: Dr Janice Proud, the Anglican Alliance’s Disaster Response and Resilience Manager, and Nagulan Nesiah, Senior Program Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Katie Mears, Senior Director, US Disaster Program, at Episcopal Relief & Development, shared some key learning from their experience of good disaster response and resilience practice.
Katie Mears shared three key points which people need in times of crisis:
- connection to community
- information – accurate and contextual
- agency – the ability for individuals to make meaningful choices, even if within limited options.
This final point is very significant in ensuring that we do not reduce vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, to being seen passive ‘objects’ of care but rather encourage them to see what choices they have personal control over, and how they can also be a source of hope and encouragement to others.
Nagulan Nesiah described the resilience equation as a helpful way of thinking through a difficult situation and formulating a response plan based on local assets (resources, skills and experience).
Capacities: What are the people, strengths, resources, assets, networks, etc that can be drawn on?
Hazards: What is government information on the virus and information from the local government about local incidence, etc?
Vulnerabilities: Who is particularly vulnerable in your community? Who is already vulnerable and who will become vulnerable through loss of income, lack of safe space, etc?