Churches are once again locked down. There are no more in-person services on a Sunday, or in-person students’ group on a Thursday until December 2.
But local churches in Kingston are going above and beyond to keep their congregation hearing the Word during lockdown.
King’s Church and Cornerstone Church in Kingston have been doing their best to keep the congregation safe and to continue in-person services.
However, that all changed when PM Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown.
Now, the only in-person church events Cornerstone is able to have are Sunday morning private prayer sessions.
This started as a Remembrance Sunday private prayer session where members were encouraged to book a slot with their household and pray socially distanced in the church building.
The leaders decided it worked well and was so encouraging for the congregation that it will take place every Sunday morning during November.
“We’re anxious to keep them as safe as we can.”
Tom Sweatman, the assistant minister at Cornerstone Church Kingston, said: “In our congregation we have senior members, folks with various conditions which make them more vulnerable, and pregnant mothers and we’re anxious to keep them as safe as we can.
“From one angle, the safest thing to do would be to not meet at all. We could just move all of our ministries back online and keep them there until there’s a vaccine. However, as many people in society have noticed, the mental and social consequences of not interacting with other people in person are very serious.”
Saskia Henshall-Harris, a fine art student at the university, is in her third year of attending Cornerstone Church. She explained the changes the Church has made to keep everyone safe during the pandemic.
“The changes because of Covid-19 have included services being online for months, communicating with Zoom, and watching services on Sundays on YouTube.”
Between lockdowns, the Church were able to “meet together in four split services, two being shown live” but now there are no in-person services, and two Sunday services being broadcast live at 11am and 6:30pm.
When they did meet, they had “to social distance and wear masks at all times, we cannot hug like we use to and that is really hard,” she said.
Some members of the Church have been very negatively affected.
“It was really difficult and upsetting because you want to talk to everyone, chat, hug and go to each other’s homes. We have had to make extra effort to see each other outside the church via Zoom, and small meet ups outside, following the government restrictions” said Henshall-Harris.
“It’s what we must do for the safety of others and ourselves.”
Another student at the university, studying architecture, Sophie Hazeldine said: “We can’t lay hands on people as we pray for them, in fact praying for each other is something we are unable to do within the church service now.
“Faith isn’t meant to be just a solo thing, we have a strong sense of community because we believe in learning, praying and worshipping together, so Covid-19 has impacted how we do that and it is sad, but it’s what we must do for the safety of others and ourselves.”
Sweatman questioned his faith while at secondary school, but then said: “During my second year of university, my younger brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent multiple surgeries to have the mass removed and was then treated with radiotherapy in order to shrink the residual tumour. Thankfully, he has since made a good recovery. However, at the time we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen to him.
“This was a frightening experience for our family and friends. It forced me to ask questions about my own mortality: ‘What would happen to him if he died? What will happen to me when I die? Is there a God after all? Does he care? Can he help?’
“Many people ask these kinds of questions during difficult times and I was no different. I decided that I needed to reinvestigate the claims of Jesus for myself. I wanted to know whether the Bible was just an old religious book which some people like or whether it was, in fact, the truth.”
“A light shining in the darkness”
Many people are going through similar experiences right now. Henshall-Harris said: “The Church have been such a light shining in the darkness as we all go through hard times together. They were there making pre-recorded Church services, and making sure that we were never alone even in the isolation of lockdown.”
Hazeldine said: “I think it’s fair to say that Covid-19 has completely knocked all of us in one way or another and we are living in such uncertainty with no clue when or what our future will look like, but I believe wholeheartedly in God who is certain, unchanging and who has given us eternal hope that even a Covid-free world can’t offer.”
During the first lockdown, the local churches took a strategy of ‘togetherness’. Even if the in-person services were all temporarily cancelled, Cornerstone made an extra effort to reach out to their congregation. And King’s Church set up an Instagram account where they post inspirational videos and bible verses.
Cornerstone continue to put out several video series including ‘Corona Chronicles’ and ‘Tea with The King’ on their YouTube Channel ‘cstonekingston’ as well as livestreams of their Sunday services. King’s Church also livestream their services which can be watched on their website.
For the Cornerstone Church congregation, Sweatman said: “In more normal times, we eat together every week and we’ve all really missed this opportunity to interact and have fellowship together. Particularly the students – no more free food every week!
“We were pleased to hear that many guests who don’t normally attend the church were also engaging with our content and wanting to learn more about Christianity.”
The increased accessibility of the church has been a definite benefit of the pandemic. People from as far away as Pakistan have been exploring Christianity using the online resources Churches have put out.
Sweatman said: “It’s sad that we can’t all meet together as a big family, chat over coffee and then sit down to a big Church lunch. It’s a shame that we can’t have loads of students squeezed onto a few sofas in a small lounge playing games and eating good food.
“There’s so much that we miss. And to be honest, although we’re back at church it doesn’t feel quite like Church at the moment.”
Henshall-Harris expanded on this. She said: “It’s worth mentioning that the atmosphere has not changed completely because the message of the gospel hasn’t changed during Covid-19. God is still the same through this as God is unchanging and his love for us is shown through Jesus. He is the one we can run to in this really hard time.”
Sweatman said: “We’ve also recently launched a new meeting called ‘Refuel.’ This is our weekly student group where we get to know one another and explore the claims of Jesus in the Bible.” This has now been moved to Zoom. The first session since the lockdown was a live pizza making tutorial with tips for how to survive the new lockdown.
“Alongside this, we also run a Tuesday night café for international students and workers,” Sweatman said.
“He is the one we can run to in this really hard time.”
Henshall-Harris said: “I have become more aware of the fact that we need each other, these relationships are really valuable and more so that when we see each other it’s so powerful as we can strengthen and uplift each other in our faith in Jesus.”
Sweatman said: “For some people, these strange days seem to have sparked a new interest in faith. At Cornerstone, we’re convinced that the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is the best news in all the world. We’re committed to help people explore it for themselves.
“We welcome cynics, sceptics, those from other faiths and those who don’t really know what to think.
“It’s hard to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones with masks and physical distancing. However, we’re very thankful to God that we have a place where we can safely meet” according to the government restrictions. And the congregation look forward to gathering together again.
“If you’d like any more information on these meetings or, if you’d like to book a spot you can do so through our website. You’d be very welcome.”
Despite Covid-19, the general mood of the Church remains hugely welcoming. There is a kindness and community that we don’t often experience in the 21st century. All of the preachers love answering your questions. Even just the spiritual comfort being around people again in the flesh, is motivating and satisfying.
Sweatman said: “It would be wrong to focus on all the things we can’t do, when there’s so much that we can do now which we couldn’t do back in the spring.”