The idea of walking back into church for a service – and actually, you know, seeing people – is almost surreal. A bit like seeing someone else in your home (or theirs) and returning to a physical workplace. We simply haven’t done all this in a very long time.
Each church leadership group has had a range of issues to consider as they prepare to reopen their doors, not least of which is abiding by various public health orders. So, what are parishes doing and how are they faring? Southern Cross contacted more than two dozen to find out.
For the Rev Joe Wiltshire and the team at Ingleburn, when to open was a no-brainer.
“Our thinking was based on doing as much as we could as soon as we could,” he explains, adding that the date they chose was October 17. “We have been out of the Ingleburn building for 18 months since the first lockdown due to a building project. We’re cleaning the church and putting up the last cabinets tomorrow... it’s time for a new start for everyone.”
At Central Villages Anglican Church in Lawson, reopening day is October 31 – or the 24th, if the 80 per cent rules are in place that soon. “We decided this because many of our people will not be fully vaccinated by October 17 but will be soon after,” says senior minister the Rev Tom Melbourne. “Also, not needing to worry about vaccination status forms is very desirable!
“Our people have also indicated that they are keen and ready and raring to go once we can all be back together, so any delay would be a setback.”
The majority of parishes contacted plan to open on October 31 or November 7 – wanting to ensure the 80 per cent double vaccination mark has been reached for those 16 and over, as well as providing more time to organise safety arrangements and plan other ministries.
At Hurstville, rector the Rev Brian Tung says the decision to choose October 31 was “a balancing of the key factors: relationship and connection; safety and health; mission and discipleship; resources and operational complexity.
“The opening won’t be uniform across the church,” he adds. “Some ministries will operate in-person fully, others will be staged, and others won’t be starting at all until 2022. Also, part of our planning needed to accommodate contingencies – what happens before December 5 [when restrictions are relaxed].”
At Seven Hills, which will also reopen on the last Sunday in October, well over half its members have taken part in a survey sent to them by rector the Rev Mark Williamson, who says “just about all the responses so far have said they are at least considering coming back from the first Sunday”.
He adds that the parish wants to express its unity in Christ by reopening on a day when it won’t be necessary “to police the vaccination status of people as they arrive”. But having said that, the church does plan to make one of its services for double vaccinated people only, at least in the short term: “We do have members with significant health issues, [so we want] to provide a ‘safe’ space for them to attend”.
While everyone navigates the opening plans at their own church, spare a thought for congregations that can’t choose when they return, such as Dundas-Telopea and Church@thepeak, which both meet on school grounds.
“We’re in the dark for the time being,” says the Rev Stuart Maze from Church@thepeak. He explains that the church can’t return to Peakhurst South Public School until after the Department of Education moves to Level 2 in its return-to-school plan – but it’s not entirely clear when this will be.
A survey of his congregation has shown that 100 per cent of respondents will be fully vaccinated by October 31. Eighty per cent of these were “very keen” or “keen” to return to in-person services – whenever that will be. However, some did have concerns about children being unvaccinated, or mixing vaccinated and unvaccinated attendees, so Mr Maze organised a “town hall” meeting for members after a recent Sunday service.
“We talked about how we should think biblically about returning to church, especially with those who have chosen to be vaccinated or not be vaccinated – respecting differences,” he says. “We also did a live Q&A with three doctors from church talking about vaccines, health risks, dispelling myths etc, which was super helpful in dampening anxiety and concerns.
In addition, as members can’t yet gather for church as they normally would, “we’re encouraging people to meet in each other’s homes to watch church on Sunday, and small groups will also start to meet up again. It’s a halfway point from being at home alone, or just with your household, to being all together and church – whenever that happens.”