What we took for granted only 6 months ago is now a longed for reality for many of us in the UK. Although some churches have put in place measures to start gathering again, many UK churches have chosen to continue online. I had not attended a church service since March, so when I had the opportunity of attending two church services in Paris over the summer, I felt very privileged.
It was 36°C for the first service I attended and wearing a 3 layered fabric face mask seemed like a daunting prospect for 2 hours. I was surprised that I barely noticed it. As I arrived, I was welcomed by someone on the door who sprayed my hands with a disinfectant spray. It was lovely to be welcomed by a person, as I had expected to walk through an empty entrance hall. It also ensures that everyone coming in IS disinfecting their hands on entry.
I easily found a seat between two taped ‘X’s on a pew. The room was calm and each person or family group seemed to enter peacefully into the space and waited expectantly for the service to begin. There was nodding and hand gestures from one end of the room to the other and quite possibly, unseen through the facemask. Fortunately for social distancing, churches in Paris are usually greatly diminished in numbers during July and August as people travel to see family or go on holiday.
The service itself felt very normal, with a camera set up in the corner for live streaming to those who couldn’t, or had opted not to, travel in under the present circumstances. Those hosting and preaching on both occasions I went wore a mixture of facemasks and visors. It was at times difficult to hear those in facemasks and the visor was much more helpful in reading facial expressions, but also for those who rely on lip reading to help them follow the service. I have heard that the church has since had a plexiglass screen built into the pulpit so that everyone approaching the microphone can be clearly seen and heard.
The regulations in France are such that you can sing and it was a joy to join in with praising God as part of a community of people once again. It felt normal to be there, normal to be singing, praying and listening to God’s word together and for a minute I had to remember that I hadn’t been in a church building for nearly 6 months. I had been ‘attending’ this very church online throughout the lockdown months and it was a privilege for me to be sat amongst this community who deeply care for one another, and for who, these last 6 months have been a great challenge. There was a lot of quiet joy in people being able to gather together after a long period apart.
As the service came to an end a handful of people came by to welcome me and catch up, at a distance of course, before most people filed out fairly promptly, in accordance with the guidelines. Two young men started the bleaching process as soon as the service ended and I watched them conscientiously disinfecting the stage area and all of the pews, until their progress forced us out of the building. I still felt welcomed in this current environment, but I already have a strong link to this church and for someone completely new, it must be daunting at the best of times to enter a church building, let alone when you can’t see people’s faces and you have to leave quickly after the service. This church do a good job at spotting people but it is important to consider as our churches come back in the UK, how we can welcome people well.
I really valued the possibility of gathering to worship with this community that greatly love and care for each other. I have also been reflecting on what this time of pause can enable and what it has highlighted for me in the context of UK churches:
It seems to me that the more interesting question is less around when we will be able to have a meeting in a building and more to do with how we can reimagine what it means to be church, to be the body of Christ, the embodied reality of the way of Jesus in our communities. For many, a part of this is meeting together for a worship service, but were we too attached to meetings and programs and bringing people into a building, rather than reaching out to the world around us with the good news of Jesus? I look forward to gathering in worship again with others, of course, as it is important for us to be part of a community of believers, but I see this as a time where we have been released into new and creative opportunities for the church. So, as we think of the practicalities of meeting again, let’s make it our priority to listen to what God might be leading us to in this time and not miss new opportunities and ways to be church.
Jess works as the administrative support for Partnership and grew up in France.