The road map, SMOB and you

As we journey through ‘the great unlocking’, it’s useful to check in on where things are for us as a church. Throughout the pandemic we have sought to communicate clearly what we are doing and why, whilst listening to our people and to the Holy Spirit. We continue to live through a time which has been incredibly unstable, where so much of normal life has been suspended without any firm commitment to when it will return.

We continue to move towards our ‘new normal’, and the government assures us that their road map is on track. It’s worth understanding just what this means for us as a church. Government announcements are often calibrated to give you the good news (understandably); but when you dig into the details, things are more complicated. Gaps are emerging between people’s expectations of what we will be allowed to do, and what we can do practically in our situation. The constant ‘drip, drip’ of announcements from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland does not promote clarity in understanding which rules each of us is supposed to be following at this moment.

How government guidance works
When the road map was first announced, the Prime Minister stated clearly that nothing in it was guaranteed. As we approach each key date, announcements are being made a week in advance of the changes. Most recently, the formal announcement that shops and outdoor hospitality could definitely open on 12 April was made on 5 April. As long as the road map holds, we can be confident of some of the things that will change on 17 May (including indoor hospitality, two households staying overnight in the same home and foreign travel), but it is important to remember that none of these are likely to be confirmed until 10 May. We have to continue to hold lightly to our plans, however challenging that might be.

This also goes for the final date on the road map: 21 June. We simply do not know whether or not this will mark the end of all Covid restrictions. Among Church leaders there is a strong sense that some degree of restrictions is likely to continue; we do not expect a complete end to social distancing, mask wearing in shops and so on. But we have no inside knowledge and it is clear that everything will remain under review until an announcement is made on 14 June.

It’s important to understand that a government announcement is only the beginning of the story for our church and every other organisation. SMOB works within seven different types of guidance: we are a place of worship covered by the Church of England, we are a workplace covered by the Department for Work and Pensions, our youth and children’s work is covered by the National Youth Agency, our pre-school work by Early Years and so on.

When a government announcement is made, each of these organisations takes time to digest the new rules and contextualise them. Sometimes this takes days, but it can take weeks. A government announcement is rarely clear enough to be interpreted in our context without any further guidance. For example, the government announced a relaxation of restrictions on weddings from 8 March, but it took several days to clarify whether this meant weddings could only take place in exceptional circumstances, or whether they could resume more generally. It is not hard to imagine how this plays out pastorally on the ground.

Once we receive full guidance from the relevant body, we need then to contextualise it ourselves for SMOB. Since we first locked down, we have had to work out principles to do this as we have gone along. Our starting point has always been our church vision and values. (We will be giving some thought to defining our key values when we next review our vision and plan at the end of the year.)

For example, it’s important to us that our children’s and youth work is really fun and appealing for children. We could run groups for children on a Sunday now, but the current rules governing this are so restrictive when you look at the context of our building, that it is impossible to do them well. However, the guidance for midweek groups is different, so it’s great news that we are restarting our youth cell groups very soon. They will meet outdoors unless the weather is bad, in which case they will be inside.

Here’s a worked example: part of the announcement on 5 April was that parent and toddler groups could reopen, prompting a flurry of excitement among Bethany Babes families. On closer inspection, the guidance is very restrictive of which groups can restart – small groups essential to health and welfare are permitted, but not something as free-flowing and mixed as Bethany Babes. So the headlines can be misleading; the devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Our road map at SMOB
We continue to watch the evolving guidance, to listen to our church family and the Holy Spirit. If we haven’t announced something, it’s not because we are keeping it quiet; we just haven’t decided. Talk to us! If you have a question, ask.

With our Sunday services, it’s been fantastic to see people coming back to church. If the building reaches capacity within the next few weeks, as it will on current trends, we will make a decision about whether to move back to two services. This decision impacts on service leaders, preachers, our tech team and our musicians; we are in discussion about it, but we are not ready to decide yet. For church family members who plan to come back on to our site, do talk to others about what needs to happen for you to come back, and be understanding that people are in a variety of different places on this. For example, many of our families are unlikely to be on-site on Sunday morning until we can safely run children’s and youth groups. Some of our senior adults cannot move around safely without assistance from someone else. If you are staying online-only, we are committed to live-streaming one service every week on a permanent basis. Do get in touch, sign up to our website and ask us about joining a small group.

With live music, we are now allowed to have a minimal band or organ playing on Sundays, but we have not actioned this yet, because of the need to ensure that the sound mix is as good for those online as it is on-site, and also because we need to make sure that a good number of our musicians will be happy to serve on-site again. We do not yet know when singing will be allowed indoors.

With other ministry, we will continue to offer a hybrid of online and on-site. Currently Morning Prayer remains online-only; at some stage this is likely to change. We will lose some people if we go 100% on-site with no online, and this will affect our decision-making. Our Living His Story course and blog was a big hit, so we will probably do more short-term online-only courses over time.

I hope this helps you to understand how we’re navigating this unusual time. Do talk to our staff, PCC members, ministry team or homegroup leaders and make sure you stay informed, give us feedback and ask questions. And pray! Above all please pray.