Two years down, and we can’t even yet safely say that we are definitively coming to the end of the pandemic. Covid keeps confounding our expectations and our techniques of dealing with it. The Omicron variant has changed our risk assessment yet again. The nights have drawn in, the leaves changed colour and fallen from the trees, the children have nearly reached the end of term, everything feels to have moved on a stage. And there is so much desire to move on! Everyone is weary and bored of all the precautions, and longing to be able not to think about them (though of course this is tempered with a healthy dollop of fear and desire for self-preservation).
Shops are open, schools are open, libraries are open….and the churches are open. A lot of them never shut, like the Windmill. But where people are going back to shops, hospitals and libraries, many are still nervous about going back to church, or have simply lost the habit, and the bishops are starting to worry. Our parish priest has been urging us all to come back to church for some time, but he’s in the classic bind of everyone who has ever run a choir: if you rebuke or reproach the people who are there in front of you, your message is not actually reaching those who have not turned up. You feel that you have to say something; it relieves your feelings, maybe; possibly it will get passed on; but the danger is that those who are there will resent it, or even just stop listening. And the people that you want to address are not there to hear you.
I was considering the different approaches to reopening taken by various enterprises in the town where I live. My fitness centre where I swim has had to lock down repeatedly, and has clearly lost some staff. But it’s beginning to feel a little more confident that it will be allowed to stay open, so it is making efforts to encourage new people to join. It’s also sending out other messages, by personal emails and by general local leafletting; it’s organising events, quite small but social, on an opt-in basis; it’s trying to give the people on its mailing list a sense of a new start. (I have no plans to go to any of these events, but they aren’t really aimed at me. I just turn up to swim, and hope not too many other people will decide to join me.) The gym had only been open for a little while before the first lockdown, so it doesn’t have a great weight of custom and tradition to appeal to or to re-establish. It’s trying to make the fact that it’s open again a bit more obvious, with a blackboard out in the street, and a standing offer of appointments to come and look around.
There’s a new bed shop, not far away from the fitness centre, actually, which had a gala opening literally as the first lockdown occurred, and I felt very sorry for them. Not much has happened there since, but they are now on their third gala (re-)opening, and again, what they are concentrating on is making it obvious that they are open and welcoming. I admire their verve, even if it’s occasionally a bit desperate in tone. They recently celebrated the shop’s first birthday of being open, with an archway of balloons with a big 1 on the top.
I’m not a professional event planner, but wearing my diplomatic wife’s hat, I have organised and delivered a lot of events, from book launches to medal celebrations, to sports fixtures, to film screenings, to VIP visits and an awful lot of receptions and dinners. They are all reasons to bring people together, and there are many different ways to make them successful and enjoyable. Food and drink are the obvious ones, but sometimes not an available option (ecumenical round table during Ramadan, for example). One of the essential parts of a diplomat’s job (my husband would probably say, the most important) is meeting people and exchanging information. If people don’t come to an opening, it’s a failure; if they come and don’t enjoy it, it’s a failure, and they may not come next time; if they come, enjoy it, tell their friends and look forward to the next one, it’s a success. Planning makes all the difference, especially if it’s behind the scenes.
The two crucial points are that you need to make people want to come; and when they have come, they need to enjoy something about the time they spend with you. So the first thing is to get the information out about the event, and you do this in any way you can: personal invitation, word of mouth, posters, advertising; you want to create a buzz, a sense of curiosity, you need to appeal to people’s fear of missing out. If someone contacts you to ask about the event (or even better, for an invitation), you have really hit the mark. You can use various ways to emphasize and build on your success after the event (press, pictures, follow-ups, lessons learned; best of all, word of mouth). Some of the most important events are the most basic: a reception when you meet your new colleagues for the first time and size each other up (and if you are lucky, find a few particularly congenial); an event to launch a programme which will continue for some time so long as it appeals to enough locals to make it sustainable. Great trees from little acorns can grow, but you have to plant your acorn carefully and water it if you want it to make a good tree.
Churches are in a difficult position at the moment, particularly Catholic ones. Their clientele tends to be skewed towards the older age group, which has had good reason to be fearful during Covid, but is now mostly double-jabbed. Many priests had been advised to shield; the rules for making somewhere Covid-compliant are difficult and time-consuming, especially as churches tend to be quite large spaces, compared with a standard room. This has been an advantage, because there has been plenty of space between worshippers, but now we are trying to fill our churches again; we want people to come back.
Places like my gym have a built-in incentive: people have to pay a monthly fee, and once they have done so, they want to get their money’s worth, by turning up frequently. Now that many people have taken out standing orders in favour of their parish church, to simplify the collection, the same argument could apply, though it seems almost to work the other way for churches. But what about all the people who just put money in the plate week by week? That sort of cost could be even a disincentive. People need to feel invested in their church in various ways. They need to want to come because they enjoy it; because they feel it is worthwhile; because they see their friends; because they enjoy the music; because they feel welcome and wanted. Let us hope that all of these are true.
As individuals, what can we do? We can contact those we haven’t seen for a while, and tell them that we miss them. It’s a bit tricky in our culture though, as there are lots of people I have seen at church for years and still don’t know the names of, but luckily there are others who do. Institutionally, we can demonstrate that the church is open for business again, and I’d suggest something that will appal some parishioners: why not have a Parish Tea Party one Saturday afternoon, outside the church (Covid-safer), really simple and basic but with homemade posters or bunting? Yes, there will be lots of people who don’t want or need to come, but you might catch a few who didn’t realise that the church was actually open. And those are the ones we need to lure back. And as soon as you know the schedule for Christmas Masses and other celebrations, get it on to a poster and put it up where people can see it, especially if the newsletter is not currently available in hard copy to take home. Make it as easy as possible to know what is happening.
For a couple of weeks our Parish Newsletter was printed in large print and posted on the wall in the narthex; I thought this was a great idea, but it didn’t last long. Now we are back to only digital, and you have to go through various hoops on the Parish website to find it, and it isn’t open immediately on the front page, though it should be. And there are lots of people who simply can’t access it. If we can’t have printed sheets for fear of infection, we need the hard copy on the wall. We have to make it easy for people. And offers to help do such a thing could be welcomed, rather than slapped down. The parish does not belong just to a favoured few; we’re all in this together.
Nearly everything in my parish happens inside the church and its hall, except when people spill out into the paved area by the street at the end of Mass; but if we put some tables out on that area, we could do tea or coffee after Mass and let it show. Otherwise, only the people who are already going to church, know that it’s there; we are just preaching to the choir : valuable, but not enough. The weather is getting colder, but people are turning up already in their coats, so it’s not a big problem unless it’s actually raining. People go to Christmas markets even when it’s snowing. A few plastic chairs for the less able-bodied, and we’re away. Making people feel welcome doesn’t need to take a long time; it’s more about the warmth of a smile and your engagement, even just for a couple of minutes. God is the main event, but we need to do a better job of being the warm-up act.
I am sad that the bishops’ primary idea so far seems to be reintroducing the Sunday obligation. All mature British Catholics grew up with this, but I now see it as almost a deception. We were taught that missing Mass was a mortal sin, so much, much worse than any of the other sins you might commit (especially as a child). I used to worry about the people in South America who didn’t have access to a weekly Mass, until I worked out that this was the fatal flaw in the argument. Children would get into trouble at primary school on Monday for not being at Mass on Sunday, when they had no chance of getting there under their own steam. My mother fretted about missing Mass occasionally in her nineties, until a priest told her in Confession that she shouldn’t worry and it was not a part of Canon Law. She felt tricked (and relieved). The third commandment is not “Thou shalt go to the 9.30 Mass on Sunday”, it is to keep the Lord’s Day holy, which is not the same thing.
Mass is an opportunity to praise God, to talk to Him, to think about the most important things, to witness and take part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, to sing (or hum intently behind a mask), to celebrate, to ’fall into the hands of the living God’, terrifying, but wonderful. And of course to meet your community (if you want!), see your friends, touch base, make plans, look forward...so many good things. Why would you not want to come? But let us be invited, rather than coerced. I don’t tell my children that they are obliged to come home on a regular basis, or even for Christmas. Compulsion is counter-productive. I love them; I want them to want to come.