Over a century since the Spanish flu, churches are once again dealing with a pandemic. This is how two of Lewisham’s C of E churches are facing it head-on.
During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 there was no official lockdown but many churches chose to stay shut. Some remained closed for months. It was the last time London churches made that decision en masse, until Covid-19 hit. In Deptford Town Hall there’s a memorial to Lewisham-born military nurse Sophie Hilling who died in 1918, aged 34, of pneumonia from the Spanish flu virus. There were countless others. And now, in 2021, there are countless more.
Amidst all the suffering Lewisham churches have once more taken tough decisions, but continue to serve their communities. Reverend Jim Perry of St Bartholomew’s, Sydenham keeps his doors open for those who wish to come in for private prayer, to light a candle, or just sit quietly in the Grade II listed church. But there’s no singing and no communal service: “It would be irresponsible of us to continue to meet and thereby encourage people to leave their homes and gather with us,” he wrote in a letter to his congregation following the spread of the new British variant of the virus.
Still, visor on, Dr Martens laced up and earrings in, he’s there to make sure that in lockdown people can find solace and a moment of reflection. Outside the church doors, there is a box filled with food items. These “community pantries” can be accessed without a referrals process. “It’s hard enough to say ‘I’m in need’, that’s a huge thing for people, just saying that they’re in need in the first place…. To then have to face the barrier of forms to fill in is asking a bit much,” believes Rev. Perry.
“As a vicar I feel strongly about [the community pantries], because they’re not coming from us. This isn’t the Church saying: ‘Aren’t we wonderful, here’s us doing good work’. It’s actually other people who have nothing to do with the Church, and whom may not want anything to do with the Church, doing good things and us doing what we can and bringing whatever we’ve got to support that and encourage the community to flourish – which I think is what churches should do.”
The challenges of going live
Father Christopher, Parish Priest at nearby St John the Baptist in Catford, worries most about those who cannot advocate for themselves: “Aside from basic help like foodbanks, what we’re doing is try to oil the wheels and help people who need help.” He offers pastoral care to teachers at St John the Baptist CE Primary School, who he says have been acting almost as “children’s services”, and advocates to GPs for congregants who he thinks urgently need more help. “You have to access most counselling services online, but a lot of people who need them don’t have internet.”
For the elderly, live-streamed services have been a challenge. Rev. Perry holds a Saturday morning phone-in prayer session: “For a church congregation, many of whom will be older than I am, [social media] is all a bit alien”. He opposes Zoom on ethical grounds – with the app being accused of poor privacy protection – and prefers to use Jitsi, which proponents have suggested is more secure.
Video-calling services, Zoom, Jitsi or otherwise, cannot provide sufficient help dealing with death. Rev. Perry attends the local hospice St Christopher’s where one of his most poignant memories is of an elderly woman reaching the end of her life. He apologised for having to be all dressed up in PPE, but it didn’t matter: “all I can see is your smiling eyes,” she said.
Fr. Christopher had just been at a graveside. Earlier in the pandemic, he had a family bereavement due to Covid-19. The difficulty is “knowing what to do with your own grief,” he says. The Church of England has offered clergy advice on mental health and giving pastoral support but the impact of the pandemic on men and women of the cloth is yet to be quantified.
The Diocese of Southwark, to which both churches belong, recommends extensive changes to Lenten and Easter routines. Ash Wednesday ashes should not be applied to the forehead and Palm Sunday palm leaves should be given out in plastic bags. Fr. Christopher and Rev. Perry are still making careful decisions.
With the news that C of E congregations are at risk of reducing by up to 20% there is great uncertainty. Fr Christopher fears people will be out of the habit of attending Church: “I think we’ll have a big challenge persuading people to come back in.”
At the back of St Bartholomew’s, there’s a wooden tablet that bears the names of WWII casualties. Lewisham was heavily bombed and the church was hit in 1944. A stained-glass window was erected when it was refurbished. It depicts a crucified Christ against a war-damaged background – a symbol of the fact that even out of suffering, humanity can rebuild itself.