I think I'm the only vicar of St Martin's in it's almost 120 years history to be asked to close the church building and cease public worship.
I was reflecting with fellow clergy recently that none of us could have predicted the impact of this pandemic on so many aspects of our lives, not least on worshipping communities.I remember some of the early funeral services that were so painful when only 10 people could attend, saying to family members "we'll plan a memorial service in August when we should be able to gather in large numbers then", firmly believing that we would be 'back to normal' by then.
Or conversations where the idea that people would be shielding or staying at home for 12 whole weeks seemed unbelievable.
Those eerie early days where the streets were silent, where every day seemed to bring a new restriction or rule, where we learned how to upload acts of worship to social media and tried to find ways to keep in touch with each other. And then when we were allowed to open for private prayer, the rearranging of furniture (oh, how many times I've moved those chairs!), using rope and then tape to try to create a "Covid-safe space", writing risk assessments, interpreting guidance, praying, and praying and praying.
And now, we are on the cusp of our first act of gathered worship inside our church building.
It will be such a privilege to re-open our space.
Some of you have come into church to pray, or to help organise furniture, or to help with the Foodbank, and reactions vary from strong emotion, to the realisation that the building is the same today as it was yesterday, because God has not stopped being God, and a holy space is still a holy space.
I long for the day when we can all gather in great numbers, to sing joyfully, to proclaim our faith loudly, to hold each other or at least to touch hands as we share the peace. We're not there yet, and I know for some it's too soon to come back into the building.
In the book of Ezra, when the temple is being rebuilt and there is hope that there will be a regathering of the dispersed community, we read at the laying of the foundation stones of a great procession, celebration and praise with people shouting their praise at the steadfast love of God that endures forever. We also read of the weeping of those who had seen the first house, and that in fact it was difficult to distinguish between the shouts of joy and the sound of people's weeping.
I know that for some, this weekend will be a cause of great celebration because we return to the building to worship. For others, it will be a time of fear, of even more isolation, because you're not ready, or because of uncertainty of what lies ahead.
It took a long time, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, or disagreement and negotiation, for the temple to be finished in the book of Ezra. Eventually the exiled people returned,and you may remember how the story continues in the book of Nehemiah, that Ezra read scripture before the gathered community as they stood at the watergate for hours, as they reconnected with each other. (I appreciate this is a very abridged version of a long story ... do feel free to read it for the full details!)
I pray that what you will see in the plan for worship over the coming weeks is not a gathering of hours to listen to scripture (we're not allowed to do this under the current regulations!) but a variety of acts of worship, different times, different themes, and another service outdoors to celebrate a season of God's creation.
When you are ready, come.
I continue to pray for you, my sisters and brothers, we remain the body of Christ even when we're not physically in the same space.
With every blessing