a year of pandemic | a need for change

There are many memes about how awful 2020 was. One was, “If 2020 was a crisp flavour it would be toothpaste and orange juice flavoured…” In the language of the Psalms, 2020 has felt like a living Sheol, a struggling, shadow, “part-life” of loss and darkness, frustration, and despair. And now we are in 2021 – and thankfully people haven’t been going on about their New Year’s resolutions this year! Aiming to survive 2021 is enough of a resolution. The rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine brings us the hope that things will return to some form of normality this year, but with the pandemic having impacted everyone’s lives, what we return to will be an altered reality – some things will be the same as they were pre-pandemic but others will have changed forever.   At the beginning of 2021 I would like to share some thoughts on how I see The Ross Parishes moving forward this year. 

setting our spiritual compass

Our compass bearings were set exactly a year ago during our Vision Day, and our commitment to what we believe God is calling us to be: inclusive, intergenerational churches inspiring faith, hope and love in our communities. This vision provided much-needed direction, focus and motivation during the shock and disorientation of the pandemic. It is not a radical vision – it simply encapsulates the cardinal Christian virtues – but it provided us with a coherent framework to respond to the challenges of lockdown, and as we did so we found ourselves making a difference to others, and coping better ourselves.  

When we couldn’t gather for worship we adapted and began to record services from our homes and gardens. Led by the IT expertise of Mark Sanderson and Adrian Taylor, more and more of our corporate spiritual life went “virtual”daily morning prayer, Toast and LEAF, Thursday Prayer, choir practices and recordings, to name just some activities. Parishioners from all three parishes joined together in virtual services based in St Mary’s, and a cross-benefice Family Zoom service was initiated by Walford. By the end of 2020 St Mary’s was livestreaming quality hybrid (some pre-recorded, some live) services.

“the value of such services cannot be underestimated”

The value of such services to those who couldn’t come to church cannot be underestimated, and we also suddenly found that we have a loyal international “congregation”! Our newfound ability to livestream services meant that weddings and funerals could now be virtually attended by people unable to attend them – and this was so very appreciated by couples and bereaved families. It proved how pastoral and missional technology can be, and I am pleased to see how Walford is making efforts to upgrade its Wi-Fi capacity so that it can also reach out in new ways during 2021. Our parish social life and fundraising also transitioned online: after service virtual coffee, the choir’s Friday pub session, “Come Dine with Me” and Coffee Mornings; as well as PCC and Annual Parochial meetings. I suggest that Tech/Virtual Church should be regarded as a standing portfolio on PCC Agendas, and that budget should be found for this now essential area of church life. 

When one stands back and thinks how much has changed in the life of our parishes in one year, it is quite staggering – and I doubt that any of us would have thought it possible.

The Ross Parishes have adapted and evolved during the pandemic in courageous, creative and flexible ways.

Behind the scenes there have been a hardy crew of churchwardens, ministry team members, cleaners and tech people, who have heroically agonised over risk assessments; the “how to” of livestreamed Sunday services, funerals and weddings; presenting the Christian faith in a relevant, attractive and accessible way to people in lockdown; sanitising and setting out socially distanced seating; launching new initiatives like Zoom Family Services and Messy Church during a pandemic; reaching out and offering pastoral care by phone or email and Alpha by Zoom… To those who have overcome their own fears, who have worked so hard when also traumatised by the impact of the pandemic; to those who have a “can do” rather than “can’t do” attitude – you have made a difference in so many people’s lives and you have been an inspiration to us. 

It is now clear how capable these parishes are of rousing themselves and adapting to do God’s work during a time of crisis. Let’s now look forward to 2021. 

On the 23rd January 2021 we will gather virtually for our annual Vision Day (you can book a place here or by calling the office). I would be surprised if our prayer, discernment and discussion take us in a completely different direction from that which we embarked upon in 2020, but we should always leave space and opportunity for God’s Spirit to guide and take us in unexpected directions.  Even though the pandemic overshadowed the implementation of the 2020 Vision, by the end of 2020 we had found convenors for the three main areas/portfolios of the vision.

Peter Reynolds – Inspiring Faith
Paul Cummings – Inspiring Hope
Rosie Winyard – Inspiring Hope

The Inspiring Faith portfolio is convened by Peter Reynolds, assisted by Paul Mason as convenor of Inspiring Faith in Schools. Inspiring Hope is convened by Paul Cummings, and the Inspiring Love portfolio is convened by Rosie Winyard.

Some of our conveners are not well known in all the parishes, and thus 2021 will be the year in which we get to know them better and understand how these portfolios will help make our Vision a reality in our parishes and in our post-pandemic society. COVID-19 has either changed, damaged or destroyed everything it has touched, and thus we will need to inspire faith, hope and love into such changed, damaged or destroyed places.

“there is room for us as a the Parishes of Ross to Inspire Faith by offering more opportunities to teach people about our Christian faith”

We should continue with our Bible Studies, Book Clubs, Alpha and all other similar initiatives. The pandemic has damaged some people’s faith and has prompted others to ask the big existential questions. Gone are easy answers and spiritual certainty but wrestling with our faith leads us deeper into the life and mystery of God. I also believe that we need to teach people about the Anglican lens we see Christianity through. Anglicanism is our way of understanding and participating in the life of God on earth, and thus we can only benefit from exploring why and how we are Anglican Christians. Ignorance of our tradition or failing to share its treasures with those new to the Christian faith, can only be detrimental to our future. Our work in Inspiring Faith in Schools will be particularly important in 2021 as we support overstretched staff, parents and learners. Our support, care and prayer will make faith visible to those in schools and beyond.  

“our Inspiring Hope portfolio is working hard to demonstrate how we as parishes care for people in need”

Some of this work will involve providing good signposting so that vulnerable people can be directed to the professional support they need. A particularly important ministry falling under the Inspiring Hope portfolio has been the “Just Be” bereavement group in 2020. This has been supported by another initiative of our parishes – The Ross Remembers website.

“our Inspiring Love portfolio has the great challenge of transforming society with love – bringing love to places that are devoid of love or are suffering neglect”

The greatest of all virtues is love. During lockdown there has been significant strain on relationships, marriages, family bonds, and whatever we can do to promote more loving relationships, protect families and the vulnerable, will be valuable. Inspiring Love also encompasses deepening our commitment to love Creation – and promoting Eco-Church and similar initiatives will fall under this portfolio. 

A final concern and focus for 2021 needs to be our church finances. A prevailing myth is that our parish churches receive funding or subsidies from the Government or from the National Church of England. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact, on top of maintaining our buildings and churchyards we have to pay what is termed a Parish Offer to the Diocese of Hereford which covers the stipends of clergy, clergy housing, training and other Diocesan costs. During 2020 we couldn’t “pass the plate” around during services either because the service was entirely virtual or because it would not be permitted under social distancing regulations. As a result, parish income has taken a significant fall, and St Mary’s was already working with a deficit budget in 2020. 

In 2021 we will similarly not be able to take an offering (collection) in church for much of the year, and we simply cannot afford to absorb another significant financial loss. I know that our parishes on the whole receive committed and generous financial support, and equally I know that we are all in extremely difficult times, but I would appeal to you to do two things: prioritise giving to your church, and make the shift to giving your contribution differently.  Unlike many other charities we do not make TV appeals for donations, and however worthy such national and international charities are, your local church also needs funding. Please think of prioritising us – a small amount from many people would also give us a future and the ability to do more for God. It is a challenge to learn how to give differently, but in the absence of “normal” offerings, please could you consider giving to your parish through the Parish Giving Scheme, or online or using the card reader machine at St Mary’s.  Any help you need will be provided – please just speak to your parish treasurer or to me. image

We belong to three churches that make up The Ross Parishes, and these three churches clearly have a mission to fulfil in Ross-on-Wye, Walford and Brampton Abbotts. God calls us to do his work, whatever the circumstances, and in 2020 we have done just that – we have been able to bless others with faith, hope and love, and have been blessed in the giving.  In 2021 we need to continue and do even more to bring such virtues, which are the transforming light and life of God’s presence, to our communities.  

Yours in Christ

The Rev’d Sean Semple – Rector