Fr Paul Noble SSC, Vicar at All Saints Church on Monks Road in Lincoln, shares his insights as to the challenges of being Vicar of an Anglo-Catholic Church in Lincoln during the Coronavirus lockdown.  

Paul explains: “The closure of churches presented those of the Anglo-Catholic faith with quite a few difficulties of adjustment.  This is because for us, Church life is centred around two things - one is the daily offering of the Eucharist, with a priest saying Mass every day or almost every day and the second is a devout understanding of the Church itself as truly ‘sacred space’, consecrated by the Bishop as the ‘House of God and Gate of Heaven’- so we cherish being able to pray in that House.

“Of course we know that prayer can be offered anywhere, anytime, in any situation, but we know as well that in common with Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians the Church of England has always seen its buildings as special and ‘set-apart’” he explained. Another difficult Paul experienced was the change to his own daily rhythm, as in addition to normally celebrating Mass with his people, he was also in Church at 8am and 6pm for Morning Prayer and Evensong.

The doors to All Saints, Monks Road were locked on March 24th.  As priests were told they could deliver worship from a room in their home so Paul hurriedly collected everything that he would need to deliver Mass each day; and he made a makeshift altar in his study.

Paul recalls: “Being able to perform Mass from my own home offered me some part of my normal routine but what about my people? I phoned everyone and told them that they should know that the Church Universal and our own Church, our sick and our departed, the recently dead and those with an anniversary of death, would continue to be prayed for at Mass each day just as they would do in the actual building. I also urged them to pray at home and I provided the Readings for watch week and other devotional resources to help them with that.”

Paul chose not to broadcast, live-stream or record services from his study because, although the words and actions would be the same, he felt his study could never be a substitute for the Church. It would in his house, not God’s House.

“Those weeks were the worst both for me and the Church congregation” Fr Paul said, “and to make it especially hard they included both Holy Week and Easter Week. The worshippers had to rely on my assurances of being faithful to God for them, and they were trying their best to pray without the Church building and the altar.”

The easing of restrictions to allow priests to enter their church for prayer and live streaming of services provided everyone with a much-needed lift to their spirits. “It felt so good to have a bit of normality again as I could return to saying Morning and Evening Prayer and ringing the bell so that people knew that there was some spiritual life in their local church once more.  This was a massive boost for everyone” said Fr Paul.

The downside of this then meant Paul now had to bite the technology bullet and make the Daily Mass available to people by live streaming. Slightly daunted by the technical challenge Paul sought the advice of a digitally savvy priest colleague who had more technical knowledge.

Improvisation was key as Paul , at the time, only had an iPhone to work with. He wanted people to be able to see the church so without a tripod or stand the phone was carefully perched on a flower stand or on a small table and secured using Blu Tack. He recalls: “Of course there were hiccups and mistakes along the way, including not enough battery one day and not enough memory on another. Getting the sound right does more than a couple of goes too.  But, overall it worked and the response was amazing!”

Having Mass available, complete with a brief homily from the Bible Readings set, meant a lot to people. If worshippers in the Mass could not be fed with Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament, they should still be fed with Christ present in the Word. Many expressed their thanks. People said how wonderful it was to see church again and others were pleased that the Church was once more ‘being sanctified by worship and prayer’.

So now, six days a week, Mass has been live streamed from the All Saints Church Facebook page. Paul said: “Engagement has been most interesting and numbers are far higher than would ever be expected in the flesh. I think that most of the congregation who can do so view the Sunday Mass, and some who wouldn’t otherwise have gone to Mass each day also take part in the daily Eucharist online. Former worshippers, now living away from Lincoln have also joined us online which is wonderful. 

“Our Sunday Mass has always had around 100 views and on weekdays between 50 and 80. But we have also seen figures that show that one Tuesday Mass having 300 views and a Sunday Mass having 555! It would be foolish though to consider that most of this engagement is a real prayerful following of the Mass with an Act of Spiritual Communion being made but it is certainly interesting and does raise questions.”

Motivated by being able to get back into their church for private prayer, a team of around 20 people spent four days getting the church cleaned and disinfected ready for reopening. Helpers were quite emotional on being able to re-enter: “It’s been so long” one said, and another “Oh how lovely it is to be here again.” Love of their building has also ensured that there are enough volunteers to enable the Church to open for two hours 10.15am- 12-15pm each day, Tuesday to Saturday.

Like many members of the clergy, Paul sees that the landscape of church has changed during the Coronavirus pandemic. He said: “Although we are looking forward at last to being able to come together to celebrate the Eucharist as it should be celebrated, we are asking big questions about the future. Should we continue with our live streamed Masses now that people can come to church again or should they continue as a part of church life as many have come to value them?

“Another thing we are thinking about is whether or not we should continue to keep our church open for a couple of hours each day outside service times as many have come to enjoy having more access to church for their own quiet reflection.  While there are suggestions that the Covid 19 lockdown could mean the winding down of some of our churches, the legacy at All Saints, Monks Road could very well be more activity for us, not less!”

This story was published on Thursday 2nd July 2020.