Croydon’s 1,000-year-old parish church has embraced 21st Century digital technology during the coronavirus lockdown to share worship and provide support for its congregation, writes DAVID MORGAN
Rev Dr Andrew Bishop, the priest in charge of Croydon Minster, knows how rapidly life can change. As a Church of England vicar, you are part and parcel of life’s ebbs and flows in your parish.
In December, he was leading a televised broadcast of the Minster’s Christmas Midnight Mass on BBC1, with a global audience of millions. In March, Father Andrew was forced to close the church.
The closure, because of the covid-19 pandemic, has created a very different picture of church life and worship.
The church choir which in December wowed its television audience has not been able to practise together, let alone sing any services.
A plan was needed so that Croydon Minster could carry on its role as the civic church of Croydon, being there as a spiritual rock for all.
With no services permitted and the church doors firmly locked, radical solutions needed to be found so that the church witness could continue. Father Andrew, assisted and supported by his family locked down in their house, went online to bring services and reflections to others via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Other members of the clergy recorded services of morning and evening prayer, to go on the church website and beyond.
Many churches have encompassed this digital revolution so now, sitting in the comfort of their own home, individuals can browse and select any number of services, at any time. Some churches chose Zoom, where services are streamed live with contributions coming from several individuals via their screens. Others, like the Minster, chose the more structured route with the priest leading the service which is recorded and uploaded on to social media. Remarkably, people from as far afield as America and Australia now regularly choose to watch the services on the Minster’s YouTube channel (yes, 1,000-year-old Croydon Minster has its own YouTube channel: click here).
Other former parishioners who have moved to other parts of the country have been pleased that they could again participate in worship at the Minster, albeit virtually.
In the past couple of weeks, since the lockdown has been eased, members of the clergy have been able to come into the church building and to broadcast the service from there. This has included organ music with Ronny Krippner, the director of music, also allowed to go in to play so that the online congregation can again hear the glorious sounds of that fantastic instrument.
Minster music-making has evolved too. No longer able to meet together, the choirs have continued to meet over Zoom. Individual and group training for the choristers has continued, as they study for their gold, silver and bronze awards from the Royal School of Church Music.
Hymns and anthems have been recorded for use in services with each choir member recording their own part, sending it to Dr Krippner who then uses software to collate the individual parts into a harmonic whole.
Although no services were able to be held in the church over Easter, the choir could be heard on the RSCM Big Evensong, as they were chosen to sing the psalm. Broadcast on the school’s YouTube channel, it reached a huge number of people. It is amazing what can be achieved through virtual singing, although it cannot make up for live performances. Many choristers have found their voices through individual singing and recording, while one family have become a sensation on Twitter with their family recordings.
While acknowledging that people cannot meet together and miss this interaction, Father Joe, our curate, has been exploring creative ways of other contacts. “One of the good things that has happened during lockdown, for me, is that all the clergy have been able to come together every day for morning prayer on Zoom,” he said.
“Ordinarily we couldn’t always manage that, as we had to be in schools or travelling for a meeting. We have even held Zoom coffee mornings.”
Parishioners invited to come together have spoken positively of the venture. “I have got to know new people and something about them through these coffee mornings,” one said. “I have seen that person in church but I have never had the opportunity speak with them before.”
Given that many parishioners are furloughed, sheltered or just not confident to be out, these sorts of contact have been vital. Everyone on the church’s database has had at least one phone call during the lockdown to check on them and if they need anything. Thus, the church has been an active support network both for the needy and for those who are ready and able to help.
“What will you be doing this time tomorrow?” has been another initiative designed to bring folk together. Asked in a filmed interview, various figures have outlined what they have done during the lockdown and the finished results have been posted on the church website.
Father Andrew has made many short videos during lockdown which are all posted on the church website and on the YouTube channel. He led viewers through a series of reflections and explanations about the Eucharist, the central focus of worship. Before the lockdown these would have been included in sermons. With this new approach, the congregation and wider public can go back and use them at their leisure to focus and understand more of their own faith and journey through life. His easy on-camera manner and excellent scripts make him a natural in this field.
As lockdown restrictions have eased in the last fortnight, the Minster has been open for private prayer on Wednesdays and Sundays from 11am to 1pm. In ordinary times many people, of all faiths and none, come to spend a little time in the church building in quiet reflection or contemplation. Several of those have returned to be able to sit in a sacred space again.
Soon we will be able to have our hair cut (definitely), drink a pint (maybe), go to a different shop (possibly) and return to church for a service (hurrah). Plans for the resumption of services are being drawn up at the moment. Much as everyone might like to get back to church, the services will look and feel different.
No singing of the service or any hymns will seem very strange to Minster congregations. Sitting apart from friends in the pews will take some getting used to. But we must remember that older individuals and those with health concerns will still be choosing not to attend. For those, the digital revolution must continue.
A church has stood on the site of the Minster since at least AD980. It will take more than a pandemic to stop its life and witness.