COVID-19: An update from the Bishop of Oxford

Ad Clerum – July 2021

You will have received on Saturday some detailed guidance prepared by the Church of England in response to the changing government guidance on COVID. I’m sorry that this will present you with several complex problems and decisions just at the moment when you are more than ready for a holiday. We hope you will continue to give due priority to good space and recreation over the summer months, even if this means making some changes more slowly.

Please remember that the advice sets out what is possible and not what has to be done. Changes do not need to be introduced all at once, and certainly not by this coming Sunday.

There will need to be good consultation with PCCs and church officers about changes to your present patterns. We emphasise the importance of the incumbent and the PCC continuing to work together and reaching a common mind wherever possible. It is important to note that local changes must be supported by updated risk assessments. A revised risk assessment template is available here.

For the safety of all

Given the public health concerns and the rising number of infections, as bishops in the Diocese of Oxford we advise extreme caution at present in respect of re-introducing the common cup at services of Holy Communion for the time being. This advice comes from the perspective of both the congregation and the priest (who will need to consume the elements). The safety and wellbeing of all, including clergy and ministers, must be foundational in decision making.

We recognise that the situation will continue to change, and therefore all congregations will need to continue to adapt and evolve practice in the coming months. This will be a season when we need to bear in mind a range of different needs – especially those who are shielding or scared and those who are clinically vulnerable to infection – as we seek to gently regather the people of God in the coming months.

A number of very helpful points were raised about the administration of Holy Communion at our Diocesan Synod in June. I have written to the House of Bishops seeking further debate and consideration of these. We await a response.

Justice, hospitality and inclusion

Emma Major, a Licensed Lay Minister, and the Revd Katie Tupling, Diocesan Disability Adviser, have written powerfully about the importance of local leadership teams prioritising justice, hospitality and inclusion. Worshipping together safely is an excellent guide for churches at this stage of the pandemic.

We will all need to be prepared for ongoing pastoral complexity – the need to still storms, correct misunderstandings with patience and good humour, recognise the fears and hopes in ourselves and others and seek to hold together (somehow!) the contradictory demands from different parts of the church. Don’t feel you need to carry any of this on your own: we are called to support one another, and the bishops and archdeacons are here to listen and advise.

Grace and restoration

And in the midst of it all, God continues God’s gracious work of grace and restoration. On Sunday, I rejoiced to be with St George’s Tylers Green in the morning, gathered for the first time in person to worship outside and celebrate 150 years since the founding of the church. In the evening, I was privileged to confirm five young adults in St Aldates in Oxford, all of whom gave powerful testimony to God’s grace. Yesterday evening I was moved to tears in Christ Church as the congregation sang together for the first time since restrictions began. Everyone wore masks, social distancing was in place… and it was joyous.

With every blessing as we navigate forward together,

We commend the following pastoral principles, adapted from suggestions made by the rector of All Saints’ Church, Northampton.
  • The advice from government and the national church sets out what is possible and how to think it through, not what must be done.
  • Change does not need to take place all at once. Some changes will take time. Work out what to do first and deliver that. Carry others with you, and seek consent.
  • There is no time limit. Resist the temptation to respond to requests for a timetable and only give undertakings for the short term. Be prepared to change course.
  • Recognise in yourself and others the fears that will come change (and also from no change)
  • Fix your eyes on those who are vulnerable in any way. Risk assessments must address the whole people of God.
  • Remember your online congregation and continue to offer a livestream where possible.
  • Be prepared for pastoral complexity – this will involve stilling some storms, correcting some misunderstandings, helping people to think of the needs of others, and the reality of contradictory demands from different parts of the church. Hold them together – they all belong.