Reopening for worship

‘How was the lockdown for you?’ I can imagine being asked in twenty years time by those who didn’t experience it. Non-clergy friends of mine assumed that once the cathedral was suddenly closed that everything would be on hold, my hammock would be put up in the garden and that I spent the weeks gently rocking myself while soaking up the sun and engaging in some gentle reading while sipping chilled Sauvignon Blanc!

Now I have a confession to make! My hammock was indeed put up in its place in the garden, but very little time was spent in it. Who would have thought that being away from the cathedral and the office would make members of the Exec team, along with some other staff at the cathedral just as busy as if we were open for business as usual?! Meetings were needed to discuss the immediate actions associated with the cathedral closure, safety precautions for example and the impact on our staff and congregation. I learnt to use ‘zoom’ which I had never heard of before, let alone used! Meetings were therefore held and we were able to discuss the issues that the lockdown had immediately presented, as well as support each other and even begin to plan for the future – and that was even before we began thinking and worrying about the finances! One of the more fun zoom meetings has been the ‘Precentor’s Gin Parties’ held over zoom where we were able to tell each other what we were doing in each cathedral and to share ideas and thoughts about how, for example, we were going to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, what was going to happen to all the services and events that were due to have taken place, and what we were planning when the go ahead was finally given for services to take place within our cathedrals.

In the meantime, many of us wrestled with where God was in the pandemic, what message we might give to those in our congregations and beyond, and how our prayer life could be maintained and developed now that our ‘regular’ means of praying and support had been cut off.

The recording of services, thoughts, prayers and meditations began in earnest. We were lucky enough to have been able to record short services for each day in Holy Week and a Eucharist for Easter Day before the lockdown occurred. Afterwards, in order to continue the worship, recordings were made at home. My dining room became the recording studio (‘Nice service canon, shame about the wallpaper!’ came a comment from a friend!) and we all did our best to provide a simple act of worship during which it was hoped people would be able to make a spiritual communion and think and pray together albeit digitally.

During a webinar I attended (another acquired skill!) we were told ‘Locking the door of the cathedral was easy, preparing to reopen will be the hard part!’ I didn’t believe it – but boy, were they correct!

And so the time came when the cathedral could at first be open for (supervised) private prayer followed a week or two later by the news that we would again be able to hold services which the public would be able to attend.

Of course, this indeed didn’t mean that we could just open the cathedral doors and that people could flood in as before the lockdown. There were new regulations which had to be observed to ensure everyone’s health and wellbeing. Everyone would be liberally squirted with hand gel and could be friendly – but at a distance! There would be limits to those who were able to attend services and friendly encouragement, instruction and support would need to be given to those who came along. If we thought that the recording of services was to end we were made only too aware of those who would still be shielding or unable to attend along with those (hopefully) who lived in far off places who would still like to keep in touch with what was going on and take part digitally.

As you can imagine, much thought, discussion and planning went into the re-opening and the services to be held. The cathedral seating was set out in a socially distanced way, singing would not be permitted, could the organ be played? The regulations came thick and fast, sometimes with very short notice!

And then our first Sunday, the 5th July arrived. I admit to being nervous as the day approached! Here we had held many meetings to prepare, and many zoom meetings had taken place among the precentors who shared knowledge and debated what was and what was not possible.

It was my privilege to preside at the 8 am BCP Holy Communion. It was such a great joy to see people arrive, to take their places in the quire and to receive the Sacrament again in the cathedral, some people not having done so for three months. Was it my imagination or was the Gloria said with extra joy and gusto at the end of the service than it normally is? ‘Glory to God in the highest’ – it seemed to reverberate around the cathedral filling every corner, dispelling the empty silence which had preceded it for some time.

The 10 am Sunday Eucharist was a great worry to us. How to incorporate all the guidance to ensure the safe reception of the Sacrament for all present? What happened if too many people turned up that we would be unable to fit into the socially distanced limit we could accommodate? Would people have downloaded an order of service or be offended at not being handed one? And so the first people came through the west doors. What a joy! I confess to the first of a few surreptitious tears slipped from my eye. They and all others who attended the service were so full of joy at being back in the cathedral that any inconvenience went almost unnoticed. There would be no singing permitted, but we were able to incorporate the organ into the liturgy. It was also our Organ Scholar, Manuel Piazza’s last day as he was due to leave Truro the very next day on his journey back to Canada. Another tear at 9.45 came at the sound of live music, Manuel began playing the organ – how can music produce such a reaction so easily? (Best wishes Manuel for your future – and thanks for playing the organ for our first service back, something for posterity I’m sure!) And so the service began – and continued, without a hitch. The feeling of overarching joy and gratitude filled all present and we were so glad to be back again – ‘home’ some people remarked.

Of course things will develop as time goes on. Our weekday services began again, albeit at different times and not quite the number of services as before the lockdown. As numbers increase we have to implement a ‘booking system’ for Sundays (against the grain I know, but necessary at the moment) to control numbers and to ensure that everyone can come along who would like to. We look forward to a time when the regulations are further relaxed and singing can become part of our worship again. To begin with, a cantor might further enhance our services, and then eventually (and may it not be long!) to the return of the choir and our glorious ritual and to ‘normal service resumed’.

In the meantime a big ‘thank you’! to my colleagues for the support, recorded services and for all that they have done during the past few months. To everyone who ‘tuned in’ to our recorded worship and made supportive and appreciative comments and offered much needed prayer. To everyone who has attended our services thus far and made them extremely special. And above all to God, the giver of all goodness and grace – may he bless us – no, that’s not right; he has already blessed us and will continue to do so as we feel our way into the future and learn to adjust to the ‘new normal’ as it presents itself.

Canon Simon.