God's Faithfulness: Our Help and Our Hope
Rarely has the expression 'Happy New Year' felt so much like a prayer.
I remember Sarah's Nana, a deeply committed prayer warrior, ringing us one New Year's Day. Her first words were, 'And hasn't He been faithful?' Slightly taken aback, I reflected that God had indeed been faithful. To which she responded, 'And won't He be faithful?'
I think we all need that unclouded, deeply rooted faith at the start of this New Year. We've weathered a difficult year, more difficult than any since the Second World War I suspect. And now the year has turned, but the uncertainty remains. Like Nana, we need to rest on God as both our help and our hope, trusting that His past faithfulness means that we can go into 2021 knowing that He will not change, that His faithfulness will not fail. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1: 20, 'For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ.' God keeps His promises and He will be faithful in this New Year.
Services in Person Suspended
Following discussions with Standing Committee members over the last three days, we have taken the reluctant decision to suspend public worship in person for the time being.
As you're all aware, Southampton has been placed in Tier 4 due to the more infectious variant of Covid-19 circulating in the South East. This has led to a rapid rise in the rate of infections locally. When we resumed public worship in July, the rate of infections in Southampton was around 5 per 100k. It is now more than 500 per 100k. Until the vaccination programme has made more progress, the situation appears likely to worsen in the short term given that the variant of the virus is at least 50% more transmissible and is becoming the dominant strain. Another lockdown seems increasingly likely. Thus, while it may be legal to hold services in person, in the current circumstances it doesn't appear to us to be wise to do so.
Aside from concern about the local situation relating to Covid-19, the following were also key factors in the decision:
1. Youth work and children's work in person are not currently permitted (in fact, all groups meeting in person are banned). These key ministries have to move wholly online for the time being.
2. In Tier 4, I fear that policing the restrictions is likely to become both more necessary and more difficult. As we will have to become more intrusive about insisting the rules are followed (for example, no mingling inside or outside the church), it may become harder to maintain an atmosphere genuinely conducive to worship.
3. I think it is likely that the number of those wanting to attend a worship service in person in the current circumstances is understandably likely to be low. It appears wisest, therefore, to put our efforts into reaching as many as we can through our online services.
Please be assured that it is our intention to reopen for public worship services in person as soon as the restrictions in Southampton are eased and it seems wise to do so (for example, our city moving into a lower tier would prompt us to review things).
Moving to Online Services
Thanks to the generosity of so many folk within Highfield at our recent Gift Day, we do have the funds to purchase and install the necessary equipment in church to allow us to live stream services.
As I stressed at the time, we were aiming to be able to build up to live streaming from February. Our live streaming of services over the Christmas period, as wonderful as the services were, relied on significant amounts of borrowed kit and outside expertise. We need time to order the remaining pieces of equipment and install everything over the next few weeks (some items have an order time of 5-6 weeks and will not arrive until much later in the month). We also need time to continue to build up the teams to run services that are live streamed.
So we've made a brilliant start in all kinds of ways, and thank you to all who have been part of making things happen over Christmas. But we now need to temper our expectations as to just how quickly we can move to operating effectively in this new world. The approach during January will be to ramp things up slowly, adding more elements to what we can offer on Sundays over time (and confirming through further checks that our broadband can cope with two services being live streamed at the same time as the 10.30am and YTH CHRCH would require).
Your gifts have helped to make all of this possible - thank you so much. Please pray for us as we make wise decisions as to how to ramp things up in a sustainable way, and be patient with us if we cannot do everything all at once!
Our Help and Our Hope
The clock of Southampton's Civic Centre has a chime that rings every hour. The tune it plays is a hymn tune, written by Isaac Watts. The hymn is 'O God, our Help in Ages Past', a hymn I associate with the yearly Remembrance Day parade in Bletchley, reflecting on our country's history and how God has sustained us as a people in so many challenges.
Drawing on Psalm 90, the hymn challenges us to look both backwards and forwards: backwards, remembering all the ways in which God has helped and strengthened us in the past, and forwards, trusting all the ways in which we will know God as our hope for the years to come. It invites us both to remember God as the 'shelter from the stormy blast', but also to rest in Him as our 'eternal home'.
These are difficult times. Every time we're lifted by hopeful news, it seems to be swiftly overshadowed by difficult news (for example, hope engendered by a vaccine gets trumped by concerns about how it's to be administered). Very many of us are feeling down, and everywhere around us people are feeling the strain of such a difficult year, with no clear end in sight.
In such a time as this, we need to stand in the Lord and His mighty strength (Ephesians 6: 10). There is a spiritual dimension to this crisis and the despair it is sowing around us. We need to remember that both our city and our country have weathered previous storms. We need to stand on the fact that God is our deliverer, and pray for His deliverance for our city, our households and ourselves. We need to pray passionately for our Father to be our shelter in this stormy blast. We need to stand on the fact that our Father has been a true help in the past, and that He will not just be our hope for the years to come, but also our eternal home.
These are hard times, but we are not alone - God is with us, our help and our hope. Let's hug that truth to ourselves and pray that we will live in that truth, day-by-day, and be able to share it with those around us. Let's be actively praying for Him to deliver our city, our households and ourselves and for Him to be once again our 'shelter from the stormy blast' throughout 2021.
Priest in Charge