By PATRICK KIDD (The Times)
Father Nicholas stood alone in his church, wondering if anyone would come. Opening night — or reopening morning — creates anxiety. A cold wind whipped through the open doors but brought with it a familiar and warm smile. “I’m often the only one there at that time on a Saturday,” Catherine Varney told me later. “So when I saw it was just me and the vicar I thought ‘Everything’s back to normal.’ ”
Not quite. Arrows on the floor and hand sanitiser were signs that this was a bit different but after 15 weeks without a service it was better than nothing.
All Saints may be quiet at 8am on a Saturday but the church in Blackheath, southeast London, had been packed for the last Sunday Mass in February, where we celebrated Mrs Varney’s 90th birthday. As much part of the church fabric as the clock, if less in need of constant repair, she has worshipped there for 63 years, still sings in the choir, or would if it were allowed (“the greatest sadness,” she said), organises the flowers, and recently saw her great granddaughter baptised there. Of course she would be the first to return.
Four Sundays after her birthday the church closed for three months. For much of that not even the vicar was allowed to enter and pray for his community. “I thought it was appalling,” said Mrs Varney, who spent her nursing career at Barts and is unflustered by the pandemic. “We have never shut churches before.” Well not since 1208.
Compared with her, my 15 years at All Saints is almost fleeting. It is one of my life’s compass points where I find happiness, along with the Old King’s Head and Blackheath rugby club, both of which also shut in March. Whether religious or not, we have all been denied our places of sanctuary this year.
Since the ban on clergy entering churches was lifted in May, the vicar has filmed services for broadcast on YouTube but for all the solemnity of the high Anglican ritual and the comfort of the familiar it has not felt the same. Sofa-based worship is fine for archbishops but some of us need to sit among the stones and beams that have seen and survived so much.
There were 19 of us at the 8am service yesterday, a decent number for that time on Sunday but a fifth of those who usually attend the 10.30 Mass, which resumes next week. Some pews are closed to ensure distancing. There are no kneelers, no Bibles, no collection plates. Names are taken in case we need to be traced. We give each other a smile of peace, not a handshake, and Communion is received only as bread, on an outstretched hand, with a one-way system. Up the aisle, down the nave, across your pew. “I feel like Busby Berkeley,” Father Nicholas says, comparing himself to the choreographer, “but we will get used to it and it won’t be for ever.”
Before the service starts, I open my second-hand copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and read again the inscription from a former vicar to one of his flock. It is dated “Christmas 1916”, which I find poignant yet reassuring, reminding us that humanity has faced grim times before and come through. Did this book give the same comfort to Mary Bush at the height of the Great War as it does to me? The light shineth in darkness, as St John says, and while that light has felt well shaded at times this year, it has not been extinguished.