Parish Life in Lockdown
The last few months have been extremely challenging for our parish communities. With churches closed, and all forms of face to face contact difficult, we faced hurdles in continuing to live out our community life. Most diocesan and parish staff have been furloughed due to our difficult financial situation so clergy had to take on all the parish admin in addition to many more funerals and pastoral visits (where allowed). Setting up technology has been time-consuming, with a steep learning curve. Yet it’s amazing what has been happening despite all these obstacles. Here is a snapshot of just some of what’s been going on around the Diocese. If there’s a great project going on in your parish that isn’t featured here, drop us and email and we can add it in.
Bedford Knock and Drop
Our SVP groups have been very active around the diocese, picking up the many challenges that lockdown imposed many families and individuals. Pam Kenworthy, of the Bedford SVP, wrote:
The aptly named ‘Knock & Drop’ team operate on behalf of the four Bedford SVP Conferences. The six SVP members from across the town shop for, make up & deliver food parcels to families & individuals who are either self-isolating or in need. To date we have provided parcels to 27 families/individuals and regularly support 26 adults, 16 teenagers & 12 children. We expect to receive more referrals in the coming weeks & months. We set up a JustGiving page set up to help fund our food parcels & other support. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/svpbedford We distribute CTS prayer books and/or Missals and occasionally other spiritual resources as available.
On Pentecost Sunday, the ‘Knock & Drop’ team together with a few parish volunteers delivered 65 of Kathy’s delicious Pentecost cakes to 55 households from St Philip and St James and Holy Cross parishes. Feedback was very positive; for some it was the first time, since lock down, that they had ‘face to face’ conversation with another person. The joint Parish/ SVP Support List grew to almost 100 weekly calls to individuals/couples; most of whom were isolated or vulnerable. We set up a joint Parish/SVP Contact team manned by 20 trusted volunteers to call parishioners on behalf of our parish community. This support was welcomed by all .
The team provide a food & household shopping service as well as collect & deliver prescriptions. In addition we provide other support as and when needed; for example provided technical support with internet & Zoom to help isolated parishioners keep in touch with others. We send cards to parishioners in hospital, birthdays, other celebrations & other items as appropriate. Members have delivered face masks made by an SVP member, birthday cakes, Easter Eggs, flowers, plants & offered help with gardening, for example mowing lawns or light weeding.
Parish Spirituality goes online (or not!)
Parishes around the diocese have been very creative in the ways that they have taken prayer and spirituality online. Very early on, Maris Nicholson from St Augstine’s parish started to run her mums’ prayer group via Facebook video (see below). Since then, many of the spiritual activities of the St Barnabas Cluster in Milton Keynes have gone digital, from adoration at St Augustine’s to a weekly virtual rosary, to the Saturday night PraiseFest. The cluster priests were also able to record a weekly Mass which could be accessed over youtube. Subscribe to their weekly email for more information. In Saint John Henry Newman Parish, Deacon Paul Priestly ran online sessions using David Wells’ Beloved Disciples videos, helping people to reassess their lives in the light of the crisis. He says that people came ready to talk deeply and spiritually about their lives in a very special way. His wife Sarah set up a Lectio Divina group over zoom as well to enable people to reflect on the weekly readings. At St Joseph’s, Gerrards Cross, Fr Matt Blake live-streamed weekly talks on Scripture, and the children’s liturgy had a Zoom family bingo. And up in Corby, Fr David Donaghue posted daily mini-reflections on the titles of Our Lady.
St Gregory’s in Northampton took a very different approach. They did have daily online Masses and Easter reflections, but for something more tangible, the O’Neil family painted Stations of the Cross and the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, and laid them out as a walking prayer in the church garden.
Canon John Beirne mans the phone
Canon John Beirne usually runs a very busy parish with three schools and a prison, so when lockdown hit, he started to work through the parish register, phoning families and individuals to check in with them, see how they were doing and if the church could help in any way.
He spoke to 86 yr old man, caring for his wife with dementia, and was so pleased to learn about the help he was getting from those around him. On another call, a family said, “We have grown together so much through the lockdown. We were so busy, had so much to do. Suddenly we were going for walks every day, talking every day. We grew together.” One night Canon John got a crossed number, and even chatted to a Jewish rabbi in London who had been doing services on zoom, including 200 people for a virtual Passover supper. Overall, Canon John and his team reckon they made over 1,000 calls.
Canon John is now planning for the future, taking the lessons he’s learned from this lockdown experience forward for the parish. Lots of people told him, “I hope we don’t return to normality.” People are looking for times of solitude, times of personal prayer. They felt they were on a treadmill – run ragged. There has to be more of a balance found.
Ministry with families and young people
Stephanie Lee, the youth worker at Holy Cross and St Philip and St James parishes in Bedford, has done a fantastic job at keeping contact with families and young people throughout lockdown. She has been running virtual children’s liturgy on Sunday mornings, continued First Communion classes on zoom (including a party on the day they should have had their First Communion) and kept both youth groups going with real life Cluedo, mug cakes and many a quiz. She has recently launched a Children’s Praise Session which is a series of videos that include a Bible reading, Praise and Worship, and Prayer for younger parishioners. They can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVwwHTDDNwtpyN3iUxEr1Ow?view_as=subscriber. The parish has also started a Youth Alpha group which has proved very popular. See here for resources on running Alpha online: https://alpha.org.uk/tryalpha.
While lockdown continued, chaplaincy in prisons and hospitals continued, although in very difficult circumstances. Even when priests were allowed onto COVID wards, they had to wear full PPE and any prayer sheets or cotton buds used for anointing had to be burned. Around the diocese, hospital rotas were re-arranged so that elderly priests could continue to shield at home. Visits to hospices and care homes, where allowed, were also key to providing support, and of course many funerals were conducted under difficult circumstances. In our prisons, chaplains played a key role in pastoral support, with one chaplain visiting every prisoner every week to check in with their physical and mental health.
Many parishes only have a few standing orders each month, with most of their giving coming in through cash each Sunday. This has meant huge difficulties for our communities. For example, one parish counted the donations they had gratefully received through lockdown, and it came to the same amount over four months that they would usually receive each week. If you possibly can, please do convert your weekly giving to a standing order as this allows parishes to have more security into the future and saves on counting and banking which can be tricky in these circumstances. You can do this online or over the phone each week on Giving Tuesdays. See the diocesan website for more information. https://northamptondiocese.org/donate/
Church at home
With church doors closed, the faith was carried on in our homes up and down the diocese. People put palm branches on their doors, created home liturgies with their children, and planted garden shrines to Our Lady, as well as helping out with neighbours in very practical ways. The Sunday obligation may have been lifted, but according to a multitude of surveys, people attended more services, and not less.
In order to meet this need, many parishes took their services online. St Columba’s in Chesham is not alone in having their own youtube channel, with services posted daily: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmxhag9LOLa1NP-b7LqqEAQ/videos? In other places, priests ran very long cables through to the church to enable them to livestream from their laptops. Parishes were amazed to discover how many people were engaging with these services. The weekly online service at Holy Family, Langley, in which parishioners were able to participate through the readings and psalm, and through their digital choir, got visitors from Australia, Ireland and Texas. Most extraordinary of all, though, have been the thousands of people who have engaged with the Cathedral Masses . Bishop David unfortunately had to spend his first weeks with us locked down in Bishop’s House, but was able to preach to a much bigger proportion of the diocese than would be possible for any real life Mass. As we’ve already said, the church doors may have been closed, but the light of faith was well and truly burning across the Diocese of Northampton.
As we slowly come out of lockdown, we face an unknown few months. Many people are asking, where is the Holy Spirit leading us? The Pope has urged us to “find the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity” (Urbi et Orbi, March 28th). We are going to need all our creativity, commitment and prayerfulness to find the way ahead for our communities. For some ideas of the resources available, check out the parish life online, pastoral care in difficult times, and everyday spirituality pages on this site, and sign up for our autumn series of talks: The Post-Lockdown Church. Also, contact email@example.com with news of what your parish has been up to so we can feature it here.
Taking your prayer group online: Mums’ Prayer Group, St Augustine’s, MK
Maris Nicholson, March 2020
Since Friday evening, when school closed indefinitely, I have started to meet ONLINE with some of the mums through videocall. We prayed the rosary every 9pm for the intentions of the Pope. On our second day of joint rosary online, a mum whose whole family is on quarantine due to symptoms of covid, requested if we could have short reflection and sharing. We decided to use A Journey to God, a Lent course by Mark Davis, for reflection and conversation after praying the rosary.
On Sunday evening, the 1st topic “flight&fear” was timely as each gave the chance to take a deeper look at what we were feeling at this moment in our lives, what calls out attention, what are we looking for and where do we feel stuck in this time and situation. It has been a very moving sharing that led everyone to freely share and enjoyed the SILENCE in between sharing.
Last night the second topic “places of refuge” has brought out so many good realisation in each families. Because the group videocall can only accommodate to maximum 8 participants, I am slowly introducing ideas on “leading group prayers”. It is my hope and and prayer that after some time, this group could branch out and start to lead other members in praying and having spiritual conversation online. Please help me through your prayers that God will bless each of the families, who are regularly joining group prayer online, could lead other members who want to join in the group prayerful conversations.
Maris’s group uses Facebook messenger group video call, but other choices include WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, Zoom. For other ways of continuing your group, see here: https://formationpathways.co.uk/parish-life-cv/
Find “A journey to God” here: https://www.shorelineconversations.com/home-2/themes/#a-journey-to-god
Small Parish Communities: St. Gregory’s Parish, Northampton
Maria Heath, St Gregory’s Parish, Northampton, January 2020
Small communities are small groups of people who meet in each other’s homes to share their faith. There are many different models and we have chosen to follow the parish cell group system which has been fruitful all over the world. The idea is that when a parish small group reaches about 14 people, the group divides (hence the ‘cell’ model!’) to form two groups, and so on.
In our parish, we began with one ‘cell’ which we call a ‘small community’. I chose four people who I thought would be good leaders and my husband and I met together with them for about two years to establish the group and ensure we all understood the vision and format. After this initial time we began to invite others through personal invitation into the group. After another 18 months we had enough people to make two groups, so we split the group into two, with two of the original people taking on the leadership of the second group. Using this method means that it is easy for a parish to begin because it is not a big structural initiative. It starts small and grows organically. Our parish now has three small communities.
We follow a simple model. Each group meets twice a month ( for example, my group meets on the first and third Thursdays of the month 7.45-9.15pm, another group meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of a month, 2.30-4pm). The meeting is strictly an hour and a half, we emphasise with leaders the importance of finishing on time – evidence suggests that people stop going to groups that regularly run overtime.
The structure is the same in every group. Our Thursday evening our timings look like this:
7.45 – Welcome, offer drinks etc.
7.50 – How have we shared our faith since we last met?
8pm – Song (s) of praise and opening prayer
8.10 – Read Scripture aloud
8.15 – After a few moments of silence to re-read Scripture, each person can feel free to share what struck them about the passage. This is not an academic exercise, but an encounter with the Word of God which speaks to each person in a different way.
8.45: The leader shares a Christ-centred reflection on the Word (all the groups reflect on the same Scripture and have the same input, prepared in advance either by the priest or a person he appoints with the appropriate skills)
8.55: Opportunity for further discussion in the light of the reflection
9.05: Intercession: for the needs of those we know, the parish, wider Church and the world
9.15: End with a communal prayer such as the Hail Mary or Our Father.
The initial question, ‘how have I shared my faith with others in word or deed?’, while an uncomfortable question for many Catholics, is an important key to the success of this model. First of all, any small group is in danger of introspecrion and becoming cliquey. This question, right at the beginning, reminds everyone that we are here to draw others to Christ. One of the key ways we encourage people to share their faith is to invite people to the group, so it is a reminder that the group needs to always be open and welcoming to new people. Everyone in the group knows that the aim is to grow so the group can eventually become two groups. While this is a challenge when the time comes because friendships often grow strong within the group and people naturally want to remain in the group as it is, the very act of creating two smaller groups reminds people we are not here to be an introspective group, but to grow in our faith and enable others to do the same by inviting them to be part of the group.
Each group is looked after by two people: a leader, who guides the meeting, and a host, who looks after the practical side of things, for example, welcoming people, making drinks, creating a welcoming environment. The meeting usually takes place at the host’s house.
Everyone who comes to the small community values it. They all testify to a growth in faith as they reflect on the Word and share that with one another. I have noticed people become enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others, because once someone becomes used to talking about their faith with others it becomes normal and they find themselves naturally sharing their faith in other situations with all kinds of people.
Small groups are also places where people feel loved and cared for, so people who are part of a small group often become better engaged in the parish because they feel valued and loved.
They are useful after people have gone through RCIA where they become used to being part of a small faith sharing group that meets regularly. By joining a small community new Catholics can continue to experience being part of a group, they can continue to grow in their faith and crucially they can get to know people so when they go to Sunday Mass they can sit with someone from the small community, which makes it easier to navigate Sunday Mass. We run Alpha in our parish and we ensure that participants are invited to join a small community so they have a place to continue to develop their faith. Finally, sometimes there are people who are not quite ready to become a Catholic for whatever reason or are so new to faith that Sunday Mass is a step too far for them. Again a small community can be a gateway for people, a place where they can feel loved, where they can grow in their faith, get to know others in the parish and when they are ready they can then become more involved.
There is a lot of evidence that suggests that Churches which have smaller group gatherings as well as the large Sunday gathering are the Churches that are growing. Today we need to provide places for people to encounter Jesus and to grow as disciples. Through small communities, people can encounter Jesus in the Word and through the sharing, and they are places of discipleship, where people can receive teaching, but also develop healthy relationships with others who can disciple them, walking with them on their journey. It is not unusual for me to meet with people from the small community at other times to help them with their questions, to pray for them and to encourage them. This is only possible because of the relationship that has developed through the small community.
Women of Grace – Holy Redeemer Parish, Slough
Catherine Waweru, Holy Redeemer Parish, Nov 2019
Over two years ago, one of the parishioners at the church was going through a difficult time in her life.
In order to help her go through this difficult time, ten women in the parish got together one Sunday afternoon and visited her at home. When we arrived she was welcoming and received us very well. We had a wonderful time singing, worshiping the name of the Lord, followed by scripture reading and opportunity to encourage our dear parishioner. We then wrapped up with prayer and refreshments.
It was from this visit, majority of the ladies felt this is something we should carry on.
We again met up one Sunday after mass talked about starting a women’s group in the parish. We discussed the purpose of the group and agreed on three key areas:
1. Spiritual Development
Where we get together once a month to reflect on scripture, pray together and talk about challenges with a focus to find a solution.
2. BUILDING Relationships BY NETWORKING with other women in the parish.
· Reach out to others in time of need.
· Get involved with other ministries in the church
· Plan a family get together
· Partner with the Parish clergy to offer support
3. Be of service to Holy Redeemer Church
At that point we agreed it will be important for us to give a name to our group and came up with Holy Redeemer Catholic Women of Grace.
We thought in order to fulfil our plan for our lives and Holy Redeemer Family, we can only do that by God’s grace and Christ centred. It’s not we who build, Christ builds the church.
This group currently has 20 ladies on board, comprised with women of varied ages and diverse backgrounds. As a community of women rooted in our Catholic faith, we offer opportunities to deepen our relationship with God, develop relationships with other women in order to support our spiritual growth, and manifest our love for God by serving His people; currently studying the various women in the bible.
From the time of formation to date we have been able to reach out to some of the families who have lost a loved one to the extent of planning a wake, supported the sick through prayer/visiting them at home or hospital and in 2018 we organised a Christmas party for over 50 Children which was a huge success.
I Can Do Things You Cannot, You Can Do Things I Cannot; Together We Can Do Great Things
New members are always welcome!
Divine Renovation and Alpha at St Augustine’s, High Wycombe
Deacon Brin Dunsire – September 2019
Our single-church Parish is relatively large, 5-600, and fairly diverse ethnically. It has always been a reasonably active place, with plenty going on, although even the traditionally strong activities such as the four-part choir and the annual May Fayre have been struggling of late to recruit volunteers.
Last year a group of parishioners became enthused by the “Divine Renovation” book by Fr. James Mallon, and with the approval and participation of parish priest Fr.Jonathan Hill, a reading group was formed to study the book collectively and identify Good Ideas and recommendations from it which would be applicable to a conventional English parish like ours- as opposed to a North American one with numbers of paid staff.
Various ideas have already been implemented. Fr. Hill redecorated the main entrance porch and repainted and tidied up the noticeboards, acquiring a corner desk to form the basis of a hospitality location to provide information to visitors and new parishioners. We recognise the strength in Fr. Mallon’s arguments that in a big parish, people need to be encouraged to get to know each other, so we are intending to experiment with the idea of a “Name Badge Sunday”.
Most of the reading group had had prior experience of Alpha courses, so we were very keen on the recommendation that these should be regularly run in a parish. We ran our first one between January and Easter 2019, and were amazed when about 60 people signed up for it, although only 40 to 45 showed up for the first evening, and the numbers eventually settled down to 30 to 35, which was pretty good for a long course requiring 11 midweek evenings. Virtually all the attenders were existing parishioners, with only one or two guests from other churches in the town, and no non-Christians at all, but this is the way that Alpha usually works in its first outing so we were just pleased to have the numbers.
We had read that among the surefire way ways of ruining an Alpha course were skimping on the meal, and on the residential weekend away which forms a key ingredient in building community and leading people into an experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit. Accordingly we served a good quality hot meal and a dessert each evening with decorated tables and a welcoming ambience partly achieved through use of lighting and background music.
The whole catering question is one of the more challenging aspects of Alpha, since cooking for three dozen can stretch the capacity of a parish kitchen, and portion control is difficult when the numbers are unpredictable. But the quality of the cooked meals was a major factor in retaining the participants, and we would encourage other parishes to resist the temptation to substitute tea, cakes and biscuits ! There would be nothing wrong with a good cold buffet, especially in the summer months.
No charge was made for attendance at the parish sessions, although participants were very generous with their donations and we found it easy to cover the catering costs. However, the weekend away, at a retreat centre in the Cotswolds, cost £110 per head, which virtually all attenders were perfectly happy to pay, and only one person needed to make a request for a subsidy from the parish, the option for which had been publicised in advance
This weekend away was very much the high point of the course for the 20 or so who could come; it is always going to be difficult for those with work or childcare problems. Going some distance away added to the sense of a very special weekend, and the venue was enormously attractive and had all the qualities of a weekend break about it – and the weather was fairly good on at least one of the days! The venue did of course provide all the meals, which were excellent. Several people had very obvious experiences of the Holy Spirit’s presence during the time of prayer Ministry, and even for those who did not, they could see that something powerful was going on. The result was a group of people bonded together by this shared experience, much like a pilgrimage, and their enthusiastic descriptions have caused several people to rejoin the second course for the main purpose of being able to go on the weekend
We have just begun the second course, having resolved not to attempt one per term, as the burden on organisers and caterers is quite substantial. We had to hold our nerve on the numbers point, since only four people were signed up for the 1th September start a week before the commencement date, though having persuaded all the “returners” to add their names to the list, more new people have been attracted and we were surprised and pleased to find 37 people turning up for the first session, several of whom arrived unbooked; three weeks in, a number have inevitably dropped away, but we are still getting numbers in the high 20’s, and so it is again viable as a course for the main meeting room, rather than just being handled as a house group, which we were beginning to contemplate.
What are the fruits? Everybody has experienced a deepening and enlivening of faith, having been challenged to encounter Jesus in new ways. Even those who’ve been going to renewal meetings for years have been bowled over by the joy in the group. For some in particular, the experience has been transformative of life, faith and relationships, leading to them coming into more active roles in the parish. The more people that have experienced an Alpha course and found it positive, the more ready they will be to recommend it to unchurched neighbours and relatives.
We have found it fairly easy to secure volunteer helpers for the second course, especially among those who went on the first one, in the “easy” categories of washing up, welcoming, and setting up. “Returners” are also fairly willing to act as small-group facilitators, and to deputise for the principal leaders on the odd week when they will be absent. They gain confidence by watching the role being undertaken. The overall coordinator for the course requires a certain amount of strategic vision and organising ability, plus the capacity to think into details, which means that this role is often but not always taken by the parish priest or curate, deacon or pastoral assistant/ key catechist.
Fr Mallon recommends providing opportunities for people to experience an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One of the Divine Renovation reading group was an enthusiast for the “Fire and Light” meetings organised by the Cor et Lumen Christi community at Chertsey in Surrey, which have been replicated under Fr. Andy Richardson at Our Lady of Peace in Burnham, and he was very keen that a similar event should happen at our parish. It is basically Eucharistic adoration with contemporary praise and worship music. Helped by Fr. Andy’s assurances, Fr. Hill gave the go-ahead and planning and music preparation began a couple of months in advance of a date in early September the event was well-publicised with professionally printed posters, mentions in the newsletters, and announcements, and was circulated to other local parishes. (It would have been good, if it had been possible, not to hold it on a First Friday!) A small music group who had done this kind of thing before spent many hours rehearsing a repertoire of praise and worship songs, and a small amount of new PA equipment was acquired. A 6 foot tower of tables and boxes was draped in white to form a tall plinth for the Blessed Sacrament monstrance, adorned with flowers at the base. The colour of the words-projection slides matched the livery of the posters. We were expecting 12 to 20 people, and were amazed and gratified when around 50 turned up.
All attendees professed themselves delighted with the evening, as did Fr Hill, and there was an atmosphere of profound devotion and true adoration, with powerful prayer and healing ministry being exercised by a small team of people experienced in this field. Many people testified to sensing the presence of God’s spirit, and there was great demand for the event to be repeated. Its success illustrates a phenomenon seen annually at the big Catholic camping conferences, New Dawn and Youth 2000, and the “Celebrate” weekends – there is a widespread appetite for the traditional devotions when mixed with contemporary styles of worship. Fr Hill has taken the opportunity of promoting more “conventional “ evenings of Eucharistic adoration to provide a mix of styles for the parish..
For more information see the Divine Renovation website.
All the resources for Alpha can be found here.