Stoke North Methodist Circuit
Superintendents Letter 7 – 31st July 2020
A careful reading of the Bible will reveal that there is something significant about the number ‘7’. There are places where 7 is about perfection or completion. Well, this happens to be the seventh letter that I have written during the pandemic, and it will be the last one I write before Jenny takes over as superintendent. I can’t make any claims for perfection or completion, and the peculiar situation in which we live will continue. In the light of that there will be no farewell event at this time, but we hope that perhaps in the spring of 2021 we will do something to mark a formal ending.
The other thing that has happened in recent weeks is that we have had to make Nomee, our children’s worker, redundant. While this was not totally unexpected it is obviously difficult for them as a family so please keep them in your prayers Nomee has worked for the circuit for 11 years, and has led and developed a number of groups for children and young people. Her ability to relate to children and young people alike has been much valued. Nomee will officially finish on 31st October, when the furlough period ends. Hopefully an event next year can also serve as a farewell for her.
As I begin this letter, I want to put on record my thanks to the people who have worked with me, both my ordained colleagues over the years and all the people who have held office both in the circuit and local churches. It goes without saying that without them, and the life and work of the local congregations, there would be nothing to ‘superintend’! We want to say ‘thank you’ too for your support of us as a family over the past eight years. We arrived as a family of four, having had the added pressure of finding the right school and college for the girls, and now those girls are making their own independent lives. Carrie is happily settled in Birmingham with her partner Dan, teaching geography and involved in school leadership. Rachel is hoping to study dance at Chester university in the autumn, and of course is now waiting for A level results – of exams she did not take! Both of them have been instrumental in helping to lead X-cite club at Norton, at different times, and Carrie was one of the driving forces when night shelter was launched, so they have each played their part in the circuit and the city!
We have had some challenges to face in recent years and it has been reassuring to me to know that good colleagues shared the challenges and that when I had got it wrong, forgotten about something, or set off in the wrong direction, they were ready to ask the question or remind me. The circuit has benefitted much from their readiness to do so.
Inevitably at this point our memories return to the things that went well, the things that went badly and the things we had to do which we would have preferred not to do. For each of us there will be that collection of emotions that arise from that remembering. But while we give thanks for the shared time and experience together, and we share a faith rooted in history, we are a people of the future and it is to that future that we look. That is not simply a vague hope of heaven, but a hope in a God who leads us now, even in the midst of the pandemic.
Hope is always a balance of short- term focus and long- term big picture. The long- term big picture is of a future with God in all its fullness which transcends human time and experience. The short- term focus is about what God is doing now and how that is working out. It seems to become clearer that God is in some way reshaping the church, and discerning how that reshaping is working may well be the big challenge of the coming months. It brings us back to what will we keep and what will we put down.
There is much conversation and concern at the moment about how the future will work out. On the one hand we would like to ‘go back to normal’, on the other to embrace a new and exciting future full of possibilities as yet unseen. Perhaps, we all have a mix of both of those feelings.
I venture to suggest that, in terms of worship, we will not return fully to what we would have considered ‘normal’ in February, but that having explored various technological solutions we will return to a face to face form of church in the future, albeit in a different way to the past. What is clear is that while the technology is useful it is also a limited substitute. The church nationally labelled its order of worship to be used when we returned to using our buildings a ‘Return from exile’. Exile is not simply about physical absence. We may feel like exiles in many ways and for many reasons. One of the things the Bible teaches repeatedly is that God reaches out to exiles and brings them home.
As a circuit we have worked much with other exiles in the city in recent years, and we want to express our thanks for the support of the night shelter project. Jackie will continue to work with this after we have moved though exactly what can happen this coming winter, and what form that work can take is unclear at the moment in the light of the changing restrictions. Over the period of the lock-down the project played a role in the city- wide food strategy for homeless people led by the city council. At the last estimate we had provided over 1400 meals on Wednesday and Saturday nights, and thanks are due to lots of people who cooked, delivered and contributed in all kinds of ways.
For the moment we continue on the journey in different places confident that God will continue to lead us. So we take this opportunity to wish you well, to thank you for all that you have shared, and to assure you of our prayers for the future.
Chris, Jackie, Carrie and Rachel
Superintendents Letter 6 (July 2020)
Conference has now met and issued its guidance on worship as lock down restrictions ease, along with revisions of government guidance and we now feel able to give some more detail on how worship might look.
The seating would all be set out 2 metres apart. Masks are still a matter of debate to be clarified. Upon arriving you would be required to wash or sanitise your hands. You would then be taken to a seat by a steward and the building filled from the front to the back. Once the building has reached capacity no-one else would be allowed in, and the steward would have to enforce that.
During the service there would be no singing, although music could be played. Any spoken responses or shared prayers have to be said quietly not spoken out loudly. The service should last between 30 and 45 minutes maximum.
Assuming the building is operating a one-way system, at the end of the service you would be asked to leave via a different door. If it is not feasible to do that, people would be asked to leave from the back first. We would not serve refreshments and people would be expected to vacate the building straightaway. The building would then have to be cleaned completely. Should anyone use a toilet that would have to be sanitised before and after, and cleaned.
The name and contact details of everyone attending along with a note of where they were seated would be kept for 21 days for track and trace purposes. Anyone declining to provide this information would not be allowed access.
Behind all of that must be a full cleaning and sanitising regime which is more than usual church cleaning. That is complicated further when other users and groups begin to use the building, and we have to manage and ‘police’ that usage.
As you will see from the above, this is a different world, all of which is legally enforceable, and behind all this there is a full risk assessment and an action plan for the use of the whole building, which must be put in place first. All of this must be managed by the Covid Responsible person, supported by the church council as legal managing trustees. The church has so far issued 3 versions of its guidelines and 6 versions of the risk assessment. More are expected as the details of requirements change.
As you read the above, I hope you get a sense of why it is taking time to put in place.
As an interim measure we have been looking at services on Zoom or Whypay. Zoom is an online service which you can also dial into from a telephone. Whypay is a telephone service. We planned to try these things out last week, then the sound failed on my computer which was the one hosting the meeting, and everything therefore stopped. In the light of that we are getting some expert advice about how to run it so we can avoid the problem caused then. More on that when we are clear about the best way to proceed.
While all of the above feels very technical and legal it is only part of the story. There is an ongoing life of discipleship for all of us in different ways during this time. It can be uncomfortable and enlightening to reflect on and learn from things that are happening around us.
What have you particularly missed in the last few months, and if you have been able to address that in new ways what have you done? Perhaps the more dangerous question is what have you not missed? What seemed crucial in March, but won’t be high on the agenda going forward? What changes have you made that you will keep even as things settle down and lockdown ends? I was wondering what the answer to those questions might be for me, and realised that I have no sensible answer to offer. In four weeks time we will move into a new setting where we know almost no-one and know nothing about how that circuit works. Before that sounds too dramatic, it is what ministers in Methodism have always done; the difference now is that the way you would find your way into a new circuit is closed or very limited. Jenny will be in the same situation here. It feels a bit like Genesis 12 where God says to Abraham ‘go to a land I will show you’. It is all new and unknown, but this year that is true not just for ministers moving but all of us. You may know that in Chinese and Japanese writing the symbol for ‘opportunity’ also means ‘crisis’, or alternatively the symbol for ‘crisis’ also means ‘opportunity’. It may all be a matter of how we see it.
Every blessing as we embrace the opportunity.
Superintendents Letter 5 (June 2020)
How are you getting on with the social distancing? We went to see our daughter at her new house in Birmingham last Saturday. Properly distanced. They sat in the kitchen and we sat under the scaffolding and the umbrella in the rain. We are getting used to some of these things aren’t we? Including the fact that inconvenience is part of the picture at the moment. Things that we would have objected to in February are now accepted, at least for the moment.
You may know that the government indicated recently that churches would be allowed to open for ‘individual private prayer’ from 15th June. The Methodist Church nationally has indicated it will not change its blanket closure instruction until after the end of conference on 2nd July, at the earliest.
It is clear that whatever may be agreed by conference it will not be back to normal as we knew it. There will be a lot of restrictions and instructions about what can happen, how many people, social distancing and cleaning regimes that need to be in place, even for people to use a building for private prayer. We may see this as inconvenience, preventing us getting on with what we want to do, but perhaps there is something else to see here. One of my colleague Superintendents was talking the other week about us ‘learning the lessons God had for us through this’. I think they meant how the church might change rather than any sense of God punishing or anything like that. Loving your neighbour can often be ‘inconvenient’ in the sense that our sense of just getting on as we wish is challenged. Are there lessons you have learned, or things you have discovered that you will keep when the present difficulties are over?
As we begin to prepare for this ‘new normal’, we have written to all our preachers asking who will be available, and feel comfortable to
lead some kind of gathering as we move forward? The same questions need to be asked of church stewards, are people able and comfortable with opening up, and making sure that new regulations are adhered to. Some circuits have already decided not to re-enter their buildings until September, and we are getting a lot of feedback about not rushing into things from people. The decision about when to reopen is a decision for the church council as managing trustees of that building, but the church council as managing trustees can also be held liable under both civil and criminal law for anything that goes wrong or is not done properly. In normal circumstances how we fulfil that role is very clear, in this new situation we need to take great care not to do the wrong things for right reasons.
Another piece of preparation will need to be working out how many people we could accommodate in each building with the appropriate social distancing. You will perhaps have seen elsewhere that those numbers tend to be a lot smaller than we expect -5 people on a single decker bus for example. As the practical challenges around opening up are addressed, the other challenge is to make sure we keep in touch with people and that no-one gets left out. If you think you know of someone we should be catching up with or who needs some help please let us know.
We continue to pray at 11am. There are many different acts of worship on TV and on-line which different people are using. You may also be interested in what is being done by Market Drayton Methodist Church whose service is recorded rather than done by zoom and can be found at:
Superintendents Letter 4 – Coronavirus
Following on the Prime Ministers announcement on Sunday there is now sense of how things might progress.
For many people early July now is target that can’t come soon enough, for others it has a strong sense of anxiety attached to it. I have talked with people who are ready to go as soon as the opportunity comes and others who say they will watch what happens for a few weeks and then decide.
It seems probable that social distancing and shielding will continue beyond early July with government advice still being that older people or people with underlying health conditions might be careful to limit what they do. The church will produce its advice next week and is following the cautious note set by the government.
There are various things to be considered:
- What needs doing to our building before we can open?
- Do we need servicing or repairs of anything?
- Can we operate safely within the requirements of social distancing?
- Who will move furniture and where will we put chairs we do not need?
- Can our church stewards fulfil that role at the moment or will they not be ready at this time?
- Can we sing?
You will get the idea. In every conversation I have different questions are asked as people think about their own setting. That leads me to think that we will need a tailor-made option for each congregation that will have to be devised by the local church that fits them and all the requirements placed on us by government and others.
We will begin these conversations in the coming weeks to decide what can work where. It is important that we do not put anyone at risk, nor pressure someone into doing something they do not feel safe doing. So this will need to be prayerful and careful.
The other thing I have been asked about is our departure and Jenny’s arrival. The church says that moves will happen in ‘the normal way’ but acknowledges that some time frames may need to be flexible. I think it is clear that there will
not be a circuit farewell service of the kind intended on 19th July. Someone suggested to me we would have to come back to do some kind of farewell, that may be a possibility but it would be hard to fix a time for that now. The URC published their plans this week and they are assuming social distancing will be in place until mid-2021, they may be unduly cautious but time will tell. There is a welcome service for Jenny pencilled in for 1st September but obviously that too may need rethinking.
In the meantime please think about what you personally think is right for you. If you hold office in a congregation are you happy to fulfil that role in the current situation, bearing in mind it is ok to say no? What questions strike you as you think about your own congregation and how it will restart?
On a more immediate note is there anything we might do now, while still under lockdown, that we have not thought of, please let us know.
We continue to pray at 11am and keep in touch with each other in various ways. Please let us know if you have concerns for yourself or someone else, so we can respond to them.