What are we learning about Mission and the Church during Covid-19?

A paper based on Jay Colwill's transcript, delivered at the April 2020 "Beer and Theology" session; the first to be conducted online as a Zoom webinar during the Coronavirus lockdown.


There is a proverb that says: 'when the winds change direction, there are those who build walls and there are those who build windmills'. The 'winds of change' and Covid-19 have blown forcefully. Families have lost loved ones, poverty is affecting many, mental and emotional stress is taking its toll. As has been said elsewhere, we may be in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat (if people feel they even have a ‘boat’ at all.) Southwark Diocese, where I live and work, is by no means immune. In fact, the borough of Southwark has the highest incidence of Covid-19 in the whole country. The parishes and people of the diocese are enormously diverse. They include villages in East Surrey to suburbs of London and inner city estates. Different people are experiencing Covid-19 in very many ways, and it is difficult to generalise.

My role as Canon Missioner however is to support all the parishes and Anglican Christian communities in South London and East Surrey. I am no longer in parish ministry as the leader of a church, but have been given the gift of time and space to meet with, listen to and seek to support churches in their work. Therefore I am no more an expert on mission, the church or Covid-19 than you. Like you, I am an active participant. However, if, in the words of the proverb, the ‘wind has changed direction’, what windmills are being built to benefit from the movement of the Holy Spirit in these days?

Photo from cathedral.southwark.anglican.org

What are we learning about the Church during Covid-19?

The lockdown began on Mothering Sunday when the Southwark Cathedral was closed for worship, but still open for people to visit after worship to pick up flowers for Mothering Sunday.

I offered myself in the role of a chaplain and spoke to a number of people as they came in and out. During a moment of pause, I noticed the window of John Bunyan (photo right), which portrays the story of Pilgrim’s Progress. I remembered listening to it whilst on my cycle pilgrimage to Rouen and was struck again by how Bunyan could deepen Christian faith and formation through an experience of imprisonment/lockdown.

What is the church learning through lockdown? In some senses, the church responds like any other organisation in the initial stages of a crisis.

The graph you see on the left comes from a ministry friend of mine, Anthony Delaney, a church leader in Manchester. One of his leadership team worked on nuclear submarines. During a leadership team meeting, he drew this graph to show how nuclear submariners respond in times of crisis. Understandably, crisis management on nuclear submarines is very important. There is a priority for stabilisation, security and safety and a great deal of energy and activity goes into those three areas in a short space of time.

I wondered: "what are our churches three responses to security, stabilisation and safety?"

I want to suggest that our immediate response has fallen into the three broad categories of worship and liturgy, pastoral care and discipleship. The threat of Covid-19 is manifold, but for the church, as a body, a community, an organisation, it has responded in the following ways.

Safety – worship and liturgy

During the early weeks of Covid-19, there has been an enormous investment in offering worship, not least online. It should be remembered that the first Sunday that churches were in lockdown was during one of the busiest liturgical seasons of the year. Many Church of England churches entered into a different liturgical pattern from Mothering Sunday (but particularly Passion Sunday) onwards. During Holy Week especially, there are more services and reflections prepared and offered. So, during this season churches did a lot of online worship. Perhaps the efforts that churches (across the traditions) put into this marked their desire to create a measure of safety. We are doing what we know (clergy especially), even if we have to do it in an environment of challenge.

If you want to read a book on the relative merits of various streaming platforms, I’ve come across this 95-page free PDF book, The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online.1  There is beginning to be critical reflection upon the rightness of this approach, particularly when it can be inaccessible to those without the internet.2  Yet I have been encouraged to hear of the lengths with which many parishes in the diocese went to offer paper-based or telephone-based worship to those without access to the Internet. However, what's important is to note that churches prioritised the continuation of worship, not only because it is a canonical responsibility, but also because it is, I believe, a ‘place of safety’ where people can harbour in the storm.

It is worthy of note that a number of different communities have been worshiping online for some time. Groups like disabilityandjesus.org.uk can remind us of the importance of access and inclusion. This is particularly important with online church as we have even less idea who is going to walk through our virtual ‘doors’ than we might on any given Sunday. Secondly, we have the privilege and responsibility of asking to be invited into someone’s home, rather than invite them to ‘our’ church.

Security – pastoral care

The second area that churches have focused upon during Covid-19 is pastoral care. Again, I think that the efforts that churches have made to create networks of care amongst the most isolated has been a wonderful expression of community. Colleagues have said to me that the priestly/presbyteral ministry of being a pastor to their congregation has been very fulfilling (if emotionally tiring). Working with lay leaders in their churches, they have connected with people via telephone, Internet and post. I believe this has offered people a sense of security, that they are remembered, not forgotten; that they can talk and share. Congregations are reassured they are in relationship – even if they are spatially distanced from them.

Stabilisation – patterns of daily discipleship

Thirdly, churches have worked hard to offer some measure of daily discipleship. This could vary from a mid-day Bible study, to joining with others in Morning Prayer or Compline; to encouraging people to do an Alpha or Christian basics course. One of the unlooked-for benefits of Covid-19 lockdown is that our congregations are often (though not always) at home. This means churches can offer patterns of discipleships at a time and through a means which is likely to be more accessible. Secondly, some people have more time to devote to spiritual disciplines and are keen to join in.

The local church

One of the striking things about the responses of local churches is that they have been quite popular. On the whole, and in spite of the technological challenges, local people have connected with their local churches. From the villages of East Surrey, to Croydon, Richmond in the west to Thamesmead in the east, people have continued to connect with their parish churches. Of course, some have gravitated to the iconic churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton, St. Martin-in-the-Fields or elsewhere. Yet, people seem to have appreciated the local connection with their local community. Fiona Mountford, writing for The Spectator put it this way:

"Finding myself with an amplitude of time on my hands, immediately after my church’s Easter service I watched the Eucharist from Canterbury Cathedral. This was, as might be expected from the mother church of the Church of England, a sophisticated and reflective production that surely brought consolation to hundreds of thousands, all brooding shots of daffodils and the Gospel read by the Prince of Wales. Yet I know what I have enjoyed most over these past days: the sound of that bucket and the sight of my vicar’s curtains."3

I observe that the first response that the church has made to Covid-19 is to put lots of energy into some of its fundamental tasks: providing safety through worship and liturgy, offering security through pastoral care and stability through patterns of daily discipleship. Perhaps we should not be surprised that churches engage with their ‘stock-in-trade’. During the time of crisis that overtook the first disciples, what did John’s gospel report that Peter and his fellow-disciples returned to? They went back to what they knew. They went fishing. During Covid-19, many churches are doing what they know best.

Yet Jesus always called Peter onwards; from being a fisher of fish, to a fisher of people. We are called to be Christ-centred, but outward focused; to consider how (in the words of Archbishop William Temple) we might ‘benefit those who are not our members’.

Children and young people

Before concluding this section, I want to draw attention to the vital work of connecting with children and young people. Part of the team that I lead in Southwark has a focus upon supporting children and young people’s ministry in South London and East Surrey. This work of supporting the spiritual, emotional and relational lives of children and young people is vital, as is the support of their parents and carers. The church is relearning what it means to ‘parent for faith’, without coercion or undue pressure. During this season, churches have a particular opportunity to engage with the younger generation, as they ask questions, face challenges and grow. How we engage with this generation will dramatically shape the future life of the Church of England. This is a ‘kairos moment’ for all of us – young and older.

What are we learning about Mission during Covid-19?

As we begin to think about what are we learning about church and mission during Covid-19 (referring back to the graph), we are still to a large extent within those dotted lines, but I sense we are moving into the first phase of ‘a new normal’. Some churches enter into this 'new normal' more quickly than others. What is God teaching in mission through Covid-19? If our churches are building windmills, not walls, how are we called to engage in mission and what are we learning?

Mission in action

John Stott famously described mission as consisting of the twin blades of missionary scissors, or the two wings of a bird: evangelism and social action. J. John, with his memorable turn of phrase, put it this way: "People don’t care what you know, unless they know that you care." Demonstrating the compassion of God through loving service is part of our missionary calling.

Members of the Social Action team that I lead in Southwark – going by the acronym JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) – have collated documents extensively tracking the work that churches and other partners in their support of food access, secure housing those effected by modern day slavery, refugee status and many other key areas of social justice.4 In other places, if I’m honest, some church communities have been left behind as Covid-19 mutual aid groups are established and community cohesion is established apart from the church. It’s a mixed picture. The common thread is that those church communities who have, over the long term, built strong relationships with others are now reaping what they sow. Their faithful service to the community over months and years will mark them out as reliable mission partners during and after Covid-19.

Partnership working in mission is key. It demonstrates a proper humility that we do not have all the answers but can learn from others. It offers a theology of the Kingdom that seeks the transformation of society with others. We should not underestimate the importance of demonstrating the compassion of Christ as a means of faithful witness. In other eras and continents, when the church demonstrates the love of God consistently, the Kingdom is established. Fabiola was a Roman woman of noble birth who converted to Christianity and became a disciple of St. Jerome (c. 347-419/420). She dedicated her considerable wealth and energies to the care of the Rome’s sick. She created the first hospital open to all. Although there had been hospitals on battle fields, there had never been one in a city. St. Jerome, her teacher and spiritual advisor, remarked that there was no patient whose disease was so repulsive that Fabiola refused to nurse him herself. She is reported to have walked the streets of Rome in search of the sick, the dying, and the abandoned, sometimes carrying them to the hospital on her own shoulders.

When we look at mission in the two-thirds world, much of it must occur in situation of ‘lockdown’, persecution and challenge. Their 'lockdown' is manifested in the many restrictions placed upon Christians in their worship and witness that we still enjoy. In China, South-East Asia and the Muslim-majority world, being able to publicly talk about your faith is limited or illegal. So, disciple-making through one-to-one encounters and faithful service is the norm, not church invitations. There is much that we can and should learn from our fellow Christians in places of persecution: how to grow in proper confidence in our faith as well as service to others.

Mission in word – during Covid-19

One thing that has really struck me in this role as I’ve travelled around the 356 parishes of the diocese, covering an area of 300 miles – ministering to a population of almost three million people – is the enormous variety in confidence in being able to speak of our faith. Almost every church that I’ve visited (regardless of tradition) would acknowledge the lack (in the words of Lesslie Newbigin) of ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel.

If, during lockdown and afterwards, we have an opportunity to transform the culture of church, one way is to grow a sense of proper confidence and articulation of the gospel. In the words of The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 it translates as, ‘Going therefore – disciple you…’ I believe that this implies a natural movement with the sense of ‘As you go, make disciples.’ The natural spin-off from people interacting with you is that Jesus will rub off you and onto them, because Jesus is with you always as you go. This is the role of ‘disciple-making discipleship’.

We have much to learn from the two-thirds world and the persecuted church. Faith sharing and discipleship more often happen through natural encounters and intentional action. It is therefore not about a technique or a programme, but a culture and a mindset. In St. Paul’s writing, he speaks of a similar culture and mindset: ‘so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well’ (1 Thess. 2:8). Similarly, in Peter’s writings to the church: ‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Pt 3:15-16a).

As we reflect upon sharing our faith in this day, reading 1 Peter 3:15-16a can be a help to us as we read it backward, but understand it forwards:

‘Gentleness and respect’

In the multi-cultural, multi-faith context in which we find ourselves, having a gentle, respectful approach to mission is vital. I believe there is a need to learn the language of the community of which we are part and want to bless. Our communities are changing (now more than ever) and our ‘linguistic skills’ may need to change. The essence of this incarnational approach to mission is articulated in Sam Wells’s book Incarnational Mission: Being With the World.5 In it, he urges us to use ‘being with’ as the touchstone for our discipleship.

‘The hope you have in you’

We have a hope that transcends materialism. We have a risen Saviour who transcends lockdowns. When we are in locked in our homes (to draw a parallel, our ‘upper rooms’), Jesus can come amongst us and say ‘peace be with you’. This is a peace that the world cannot give.

Do we, and our congregations know this hope? Can we articulate it? I believe that this remains a real challenge for the church.

‘Answer anyone’

Peter, writing to the churches, assumes someone is asking a question of the Christian church. He assumes that we live a ‘questionable life’, by which I mean that it is distinctive enough (but not weird) to lead people to want to know more. Are we provocative Christians (in the words of Graham Tomlin, in The Provocative Church?6 Is the church provoking a response through its distinctive lifestyle? What is the reason for the hope that it has? As Tomlin puts it: ‘There is a world of difference between talking to someone who desperately wants to hear what you have to say, and someone who is listening out of politeness, or not listening at all.’7

‘Be ready…’

What does being ready to speak mean during Covid-19? How should we prepare in readiness, both as individuals and as a church? The first words of verse 15 outline the reason and motivation for sharing our faith verbally: ‘But have reverence for Christ in your hearts, and honour him as Lord.’ The Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ is at the heart of the Christian message. "To honour Christ as LORD means to have an inward attitude of obedience to him that dictates our behaviour in the world. Christians will not act in a way that will bring dishonour on Christ or suggest that they do not reverence him as LORD."8


There is much theological reflection on the subject of Covid-19 taking place at this time, much ‘ink spilt’ and keypads pressed. I recognise that it is very early to draw conclusions about what this might mean.

The world is facing a pandemic that may challenge and change our culture and church as significantly as in past centuries. As I continue to support churches in rural, suburban and urban areas, I give thanks for the diligent service and faithful prayers of lay and ordained alike. May we continue to align with the ‘wind of the Spirit’ and ensure that our windmills, not our walls, are built.9


1. OAKTrust: https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/187891: (accessed 29/04/2020).
2. Alice Whalley, "YouTube sermons will not face the hungry", in Church Times (24th April 2020): https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/24-april/comment/opinion/youtube-sermons-will-not-feed-the-hungry, (accessed 29/04/2020).
3. Fiona Mountfort, ‘The unexpected joy of going to church online’, in The Spectator (24th April  2020): https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-unexpected-joy-of-going-to-church-online (accessed 29/04/2020).
4. Anne Bennett, "Mutual aid is an old idea whose time has come", in Church Times (21st April 2020): https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/24-april/comment/opinion/mutual-aid-is-an-old-idea-whose-time-has-come, (accessed 29/04/2020).
5. Sam Wells (2018) Incarnational Mission: Being With the World. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
6. Graham Tomlin (2014) The Provocative Church. London: SPCK.
7. Ibid., p. 72.
8. I. Howard Marshall (1991) 1 Peter. IVP New Testament Commentary. IVP Academic.
9. For a different but thorough-going approach to the practical implications of COVID-19, church and mission please consider: https://www.dur.ac.uk/digitaltheology/ewo/ EverybodyWelcomeOnline23rdApril.pdf

Leave a comment