Will the people return, asks Stephen Pittman

MARCH 15, 2020. It was the Third Sunday of Lent and we had just sung Marty Haugen’s “Return to God”. Our priest spoke about Covid-19 and how it might affect our community. Five days later, the bishops of English & Wales announced that our churches would be closed “until further notice”.

A year on and we’ve closed and opened several times on regional and national levels. And, from next Sunday, we’ll be fully open and able to sing again. But will the people return to our churches?

Alan Johnson who accompanies the assembly at Holy Apostles and Martyrs, Wallasey, expects the return to be slow.

“I hope those that do return to Family-style Masses will be bursting to sing,” he says. “But will people have lost the habit of going to church? It has driven home to me that a sung Mass has a beautiful balance of singing, spoken word and silence. Removing singing turns it into an indigestible speech-fest.”




John Woodhouse, organist and choir director of St John’s Church, Caterham, says the shutdown has illustrated the importance of community and shown that the church choir is “a wonderful way to link people up”.

Cathy Scott, a reader and chorister at St Teresa’s, Lexden, Colchester, suggests that some people may not want to return.

“Some may have found better options online and want to stay with them,” she says. “I don’t much miss the parish because I have found plenty of spiritual sustenance online from a wide variety of groups, many of which are lay led.”

And Anne Preston, Music Director at Sacred Heart, Warrington, says the hardest thing will be “actually getting up and getting out every week”. She is planning to go slowly when her church re-opens and is not “going overboard” with too much music.

At Brentwood Cathedral, Jane Porter, a long-serving member of the parish music group, is particularly concerned about the return of young families.

“They are conspicuously absent currently,” she says. “This may be practical – no toilets are available which may deter parents with young children. I think we will need to be very active in encouraging them to return, letting them know that they have been missed.”

Jane hopes regular parishioners will more fully appreciate being present at Mass but fears they may have become used to the “choir” singing on its behalf.

Composer, Paul Inwood, agrees that changing back from “a spectator liturgy” to full participation will be “a major challenge”. And he points out that we’ll be asking people to sing together who’ve previously stood two metres apart.

“Having celebrations in which people are not scared of their neighbours is going to take the longest time,” says Paul who is organist of St John’s Cathedral, Portsmouth. Many people say they miss the music, but after almost a year of not being allowed to sing it will take time to restore the prior practice.”

And with funerals celebrated behind closed doors, weddings postponed and rites of initiation stripped down, have we become unused to celebrating as we once did?

“We have a vast amount of sacramental catching-up to do,” says Paul. “We will need a lot of ‘remedial liturgies’ in order to help people come to terms with what they have been through and have not been able to acknowledge liturgically”.

Much has been learned during the three lockdowns and there are skills we can carry forward. Helen Jones, pastoral assistant for the six parishes of South Liverpool, is now quite comfortable using technology for devotions and scripture study.

“The wealth of opportunity in seeing other ways of worshipping has been rich,” she says. The sick and housebound if they are connected can participate. We need to ensure more people are able to use online facilities. The ease of connection on Zoom allows participation from further afield or during bad weather or mobility issues.”

Mo Griffiths has been joining the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington, and helping them with online training for parish readers


“Our diocese was rolling out a programme of workshops which required attendance at two sessions,” she says. “Because of lockdown, these physical sessions have been transferred to online participation, with an added extra for the practical element.

“Participants are linked with a diocesan ‘listener’, an experienced reader. A one-to-one session on Zoom puts theory into practice. And the practice can be tailored to their needs. Feedback from participants has been very positive.”

Through the lockdown, Mary Rouse, has been a driving force behind local and national online liturgy and workshops. “We had people joining our workshops from all over the world,” she says, “including the frail and the elderly”.

Following the success of a series of workshops for the Society of St Gregory, Mary is now working on the society’s first ever online summer school. Details will be announced soon.

However, she misses her fellow parishioners at Our Lady’s Church, Lillington, including those she “may not have noticed when they were there”.

“I will appreciate each and every face I can see at Mass,” says Mary. “I've come to realise how important every single person is to the celebration of Mass. That’s something not to forget.”

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