Today is the first day of week thirteen of lockdown in the UK but some significant changes were introduced yesterday, with a whole range of ‘non-essential’ shops being able to open to customers for the first time in months. This was excellent news for bookshops and although the lockdown had done nothing to lessen my purchasing of books, it will be really good at some point to take advantage of the opportunity to browse once more. It still won’t be quite the same, however: with restrictions on the number of customers who can be accommodated at any time, a long leisurely scan of the shelves is not going to make you popular with fellow readers queuing outside.
Another change since yesterday is that, with appropriate social distancing measures in place, places of worship can again open their doors to allow members of the public inside for prayer or services. There will still be no unrestricted gatherings and many churches will need some time yet to make arrangements for how and when they can open safely and how they can combine this with catering for the needs of those still unable or unwilling to venture into public buildings.
Significantly for me, however, this lifting of restrictions means that tomorrow I can physically go to church for the first time since mid-March. As a lay person who is a voluntary day chaplain at our local cathedral, I will be on duty there tomorrow. And with quite a number of the other voluntary chaplains not able, for reasons of age or health, to return to volunteering yet it looks as if I may well be there significantly more often than usual. It will not be possible to shake hands with visitors who greet me, or to sit right next to someone who wishes to talk. The two-metre rule will still be in place but being able to spend time in a building that has, in its very long history, seen plagues come and go before – a building where the prayers, hopes, fears, tears and joys of many generations of people have been expressed – will be a privilege.
However, whatever the delights of some of our ancient church buildings, what the lockdown has reminded the Christian community more than anything is that the church is not the building; the church, as has always been the case, is the people. As such, the church has never been closed, whatever the circumstances, and in recent months it has been far more open than ever in many new and exciting ways. Alongside this, many people have been appreciating the wonder of creation, with the opportunity to spend time outdoors. Just last weekend we were able to enjoy walks in the nearby woods with family members and one place in particular had the feel of an outdoor cathedral. Such places, as mountain-tops and coastlines, often inspire awe and in this example – where the scenery has also been shaped by human hands – the comparison with the cathedral seems particularly fitting.