Back to normal?

With all the talk about places of worship reopening possibly as early as July 4th, I don’t want people getting too excited because there will still be many logistical problems to overcome and especially in our parish. 

Even as certain aspects of life begin to return to something nearer “normal” than that which we have had to accept and endure since March, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the only thing that will make a normal way of life possible once again is for a vaccine to be found that will give us protection against the coronavirus in the same way that we can be vaccinated against the ‘flu or immunised against diseases that once threatened life on a regular basis.

It has been said that if all the factors continue to be met and easing of the lockdown can safely continue, places of worship could open again as early as July.  While this will only be for private prayer, at least it will be a start.  Obviously there is absolutely no way that churches can open for full-size congregations to attend Masses once again – not unless a vaccine is developed between now and then.   

I have been into the church with a tape measure and it is amazing how close together our benches are in order to accommodate our normal congregation in what is a relatively small church.  We would only be able to use every third row of benches in order to maintain 2m between each occupied row, meaning we could only use 11 benches in total.  And as each bench is only about 2½ m long (six are even shorter) each of those 11 could only hold either a family group and no one else, or a couple at one end and an unrelated individual at the other, or two unrelated people, one at each end – meaning we could only accommodate around 30 people at the most at any one Mass.  That might be fine on weekdays but it’s obviously totally inadequate for weekend Masses when total attendance normally averages around 180.  As things stand there is absolutely nothing we can do about that situation, and it’s also completely unworkable to consider having to close the church doors once available seats are occupied.  Given how narrow our centre aisle is, social distancing means that people will have to come forward for communion one at a time.  And the parish hall is smaller still.  Even if I used the service counter as an altar so as not to take up any floor space with a table, and if we did away with a centre aisle, we’d still only be able to fit in six rows of four chairs 2m apart in all directions – a total of 24 – and families would have to sit socially distanced.

In trying to come up with a solution (unless a vaccine is found in the next couple of months) my first thought was to approach Yarm School to ask whether we might be able to use their auditorium on a Sunday morning with everyone coming to just the one Mass.  There should be plenty of room even with social distancing.  It would be the summer holidays by then of course and that could be a problem.  As yet I haven’t received a reply. 

The only other avenue to explore would be an idea Mark Dias discussed with me of celebrating Mass on Zoom as we have been doing and then inviting those who were “present” at that Mass, and who are able , to come to church in manageable, socially distanced, numbers to receive holy communion.   It may be a very unorthodox arrangement but then so is celebrating Mass over the internet and it was approved because of the extreme situation created by the virus.  In a sense it would be very similar to the situation of parishioners who are sick or housebound and therefore can’t get to Mass at all but the sacrament is brought to them after Mass.  In our case people would have celebrated Mass on Zoom (because the church is too small to accommodate everyone socially distanced) and they would then come to church in manageable, socially distanced, numbers to receive holy communion.  Sadly this would exclude those who haven’t access to the internet and therefore haven’t “attended” Mass.  If I considered celebrating a Mass just for them, understandably everyone else might feel badly done to having to take part in an internet Mass. 

I wouldn’t want the fact of our church being too small to make the celebration of weekend Masses possible, to be the cause of people going to Mass elsewhere – though, of course, that’s their choice.  In any case those parishes are going to face the same problem of trying to accommodate their own parishioners, socially distanced, without people from other parishes arriving as well.  In the absence of an obvious and workable solution to our parish problem,  or a vaccine being found, it would mean continuing our weekend celebrations on Zoom but, as at present, without being able to receive holy communion and, understandably, that could be difficult for people to continue to accept if they know people in other parishes are able to receive. 

Anyway, before we need to get into any of this we have to wait for decisions and guidelines from the Government’s Task Force and, in turn, from our Bishops’ Conference as to what is possible and what isn’t and therefore what our options are.