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By Sally Bennett

Write a plan to safely reopen our church during a global pandemic?  How difficult could that be?  Well, exceedingly difficult, as it turned out.

We became increasingly aware of what it takes to provide a safe environment for our community. We reviewed every potential aspect of our church’s functionality to determine how to prepare and avoid the worst to happening. If it’s this difficult for a single parish, imagine the headaches associated with doing the same thing for a whole province or country!

After our church closed in March 2020, when we realized just how dangerous this pandemic had become, the executive team of St. Michael and All Angels, London (consisting of four wardens, our treasurer and our parish priest, Archdeacon Sam Thomas), immediately began to plan what it would take to reopen our church when it was deemed safe enough to do so by the Province, the Health Unit and our diocese. Janet McIlwain and I were tasked with spearheading the creation of that plan. But I need to make it clear right away that there were many St. Mike’s angels who aided in this task.

A huge help were the documents provided by the Diocese of Huron, and we literally used these documents as the template for our own plan. Janet and I started to delve into the details and determined very quickly that two people were not going to be able to do this alone.  So, we asked various members of the parish council to become captains of various teams, such as the rental team, the seating team, ushering team etc.

They were to create specific protocols within the framework of their assigned team.  Janet and I split the teams between us, and we would liaise with the teams and try and answer any queries they might have as well as approve any costs that they needed to incur. It was so helpful that we already knew people’s strengths before this – we had a good sense of who would work best with which team.  

Janet and I tackled the worship related items, i.e., how to safely administer the Eucharist, and consulted with Sam and the rest of the executive team on a weekly basis. When the protocol lists were submitted, Janet and I would review them first, and when we felt secure in the document, we would submit them one by one to the executive team for final approval. We then present the completed plan to the parish council as an information item, and finally to the diocese for approval. 

It was so heartwarming to see how willing people were to help this process. As well, before we opened, all of the team captains and members of parish council came together to do a dress rehearsal of what our services would actually look like, to ensure that when we actually filmed the service and posted it, it might help to reassure parishioners that we had created a safe environment for them to return to.

When we reopened in September 2020, and put the plan to work, it was with some trepidation. We were second-guessing everything – had we crossed all the t’s, thought of everything, missed anything essential?

It was stressful, but joyful to have people back into our sacred space once again.  From the very beginning, the safety of our parish family was priority. We agreed as a group to continue to review our progress and to adjust where needed, potentially adding services, continuing with the YouTube connection for those still at home, and doing whatever it took to reach as many of our parish family as we could.

We have just recently reopened for the third time since March 2020, and I pray that this will be the last one.  But as infection numbers head in the wrong direction, we continue to ask how we can make things better and available for all, as well as plan for alternatives if the situation calls for it.  For example, Sam has recently started a Wednesday morning Book of Common Prayer service for those who prefer that service to the Book of Alternative Services. The numbers Rsvp-ing to come to the service has started to increase, so we prepare for what that might entail.

One of the most difficult items to come to terms with has been the small numbers that we can allow into the sanctuary.  We still have many who are not yet ready to return, and in fact may never be. So, we discuss how we can make our filmed service better and how do we reach those without connectivity. We have had a phone tree active for the past year and a half so that all of our community are linked to the church in some fashion.

It has been a difficult year and a half in so many ways.  Financially, we are missing funds from renters when the church has been closed. Annual fundraising activities have not been able to take place. But the difficulty cuts much deeper than that.  We have lost some dear members of our parish family in the past year and a half, and we have not been able to honour them at a church funeral.  We miss our wonderful choir and sharing in sung responses during services.  We miss the hugs during the sharing of the Peace, and the shared conversations at coffee hour after the service. 

Our community remains committed to our church. All egos were checked at the door during the reopening strategizing, and we all concentrated on one shared goal – opening St. Michael’s in a safe manner.  We continue that mantra to this day, and in many ways, we are a stronger community from all we’ve been through together.

Photo and text colaboration: Janet McIlwain. Sally Bennett and Janet McIlwain are wardens at St. Michael and All Angels Church, London. Physically distanced sanctuary: St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, London, Ontario on Sunday, August 29, 2021.