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At St Paul’s Manuka we felt very blessed that the lockdown was called after Sunday the 8th of August because that was our Parish’s Dedication Festival. We had an orchestral mass followed by a fundraiser luncheon for 160 at the Hellenic Club, so were very grateful that all that was able to happen. So we went out with something of a liturgical bang!

The contrast with Zoom church the following week probably could not have been greater. From orchestra, choirs, processions and clouds of incense to mute/unmute was rather extreme! However, we gratefully persevered with Zoom throughout lockdown. Personally I found it very encouraging that parishioners hung in there for the whole Zoom ‘journey’ and I was rather surprised that our numbers steadily increased throughout the lockdown.

Certainly, Zoom Church is an acquired taste. During lockdown 1.0 we struggled with the limitations of online worship, especially in terms of music. So in 2020 we had live Sunday services and daily offices on Zoom and pre-recorded choral evensong services on YouTube. This meant we were able to both maintain an ongoing sense of community through live contact on Zoom but also continue to offer a dimension of our liturgical spirituality as well.

This lockdown that was not possible due to the ACT restrictions. Fortunately the Zoom capacity for music has improved since last year and we were able to use pre-recorded hymns. I happened to be a cathedral organist for a time when I was an undergraduate, so I crept into St Paul’s to record public domain hymns for our Zoom service which meant I was able to both relive my youth and avoid any copyright issues. I also pre-recorded sermons in the church. My hope was that this mixture of recorded elements taken in church, played back during the Zoom session, and live elements contributed by readers, intercessors etc would give us a sense of ‘live community’ blended with something of our tradition that was familiar and made the online gathering feel a little more ecclesiastical. It was great that so many of our parishioners continued to join together at a fixed time each week to share in the ministry of the word and community with one another. One of the pluses of the online services meant that our various congregations spread across our two centres at St Paul’s Manuka and St David’s Red Hill were all together again for a time.

While for lockdown 2.0 I was less inclined to do too much online because I had two children home-schooling and a toddler free-ranging in the rectory 24/7, some other parish meetings and activities continued online, such as Education for Ministry and book group.

One activity that successfully shifted to the interweb, at least for a short while, was our youth choirs programme. Our youth choirs were launched in February 2020. Not a great moment, and they were severely impacted by the first lockdown, having just got started, and then limped along in late 2020. This year they have gathered momentum and it has been exciting to see our Prep, Junior and Youth choirs develop. Improvements in Zoom audio functions meant that in lockdown 2.0 the Junior Choir was able to continue rehearsals online throughout the lockdown. This took a great deal of effort from our choir leaders, but it was a worthy effort at keeping these new groups of singers connected with each other and preparing for singing in church again.

Online communications were another strategy for maintaining community from 2020 lockdown that we continued. During lockdown 1.0 we instituted a weekly ‘St Paul’s E-pistle’ which contained seasonal devotions, theological reflections and articles by parishioners. In non-lockdown periods this has continued on a seasonal basis, and in this second lockdown it was revived as a more frequent publication to keep people connected in a time of physical isolation.

Despite meeting these stop gaps, Zoom and the interweb have their limits and we were all missing on-site worship. Our parish’s strong sacramental tradition and fine sacred music cannot be replicated in virtual formats very convincingly, so we were thrilled to resume worship ‘in the flesh’ last week. In preparation for re-opening, our ushers kindly contacted people without mobile phones to offer to register them for the substitute check-in cards and our COVID-Safe plan was given a thorough going-over to make sure we could offer as much of our ministry as safely as possible on reopening.

Mindful of the varied dispositions of parishioners, with some feeling vaccinated and invincible and others with ongoing medical issues that make them more vulnerable and even some who cannot yet receive the vaccine, it was decided to institute an extra service. This would be without singing or chanting and numbers would be limited even more strictly than the 4m2 rule in order to provide a space for those who are or feel more vulnerable to attend. We also continue to livestream our 9.30am Choral Eucharist for those who prefer to continue to worship from home.

While St Paul’s is a largish church by Canberra standards, reopening has required, at least at this early stage, that we continue with a booking system for attendance at church due to the 4m2, which renders our capacity at a little over 100 people. Using alternate pews and extra cleaning have also been implemented and refreshments are served in the churchyard. Our choir valiantly contended with masks, which on a humid November morning were not very good for the be-spectacled among us. And while it was good not to be preaching in an empty church for a change, not being able to see people’s facial expressions made it mildly disconcerting! It is a delight to see the church doors left open again during the day inviting people to enter and pray.

There was certainly a sense of joy and gratitude when we gathered again to celebrate All Saints. It seemed a most fitting liturgical observance for the day we regrouped: there was an added poignancy after lockdown to being aware of all with whom we share in the worship of God, the church militant and church triumphant.

The glad tidings of last week were that the ACT restrictions were to ease again and no doubt we all look forward to less red tape being wrapped around our liturgical life!

by The Reverend Canon Ben Edwards, Rector of Manuka
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