Revd Canon Edwin Counsell – Diocese of Llandaff, Church in Wales – TIME: 36 mins 30 secs
Revd Counsell presented a video introducing us to St Illtyd Church, Llantwit Major, a site which dates back to around the year 500. He explained that he has charge not only of the physical building but also of the legacy of 1,500 years of history and spirituality.
The church closed during the first lockdown. When it reopened at the end of July, only 15 people could be accommodated in the church safely due to distancing measures. Since the pandemic began, he has been broadcasting services on Facebook live, and connecting with parishioners in different ways. Revd Counsell believes that the pandemic has revealed both strengths and weaknesses in the church and how we care for it.
One strength is that churches’ pastoral networks are good. They used the telephone to keep in touch and ensure people don’t fall through the net. Then they used emails, and progressed to Zoom. He stressed the importance of not duplicating what others are doing. There are well established services from food banks and local councils, so you can help those rather than duplicating effort.
Revd Counsell also sees community connection as a strength – what he calls the ‘theology’ of welcome. He explained that people may find churches intimidating places to enter, and that effort should be put into extending a welcome. Facebook has helped with this, as people can read the Facebook page and engage with content anonymously.
Another strength is ‘digital ministry’. People can view content live or consume it later, as they choose, and you can see who is engaging with your content. Revd Counsell encouraged churches to think creatively about their output rather than filming the same format of service every week. It is easier to tailor online output to different online audiences. For instance, he records assemblies for local schools in the church.
One weakness which Revd Counsell mentioned was finance. His church is dependent on fundraising (particularly from visitors / tourists) which dried up under lockdown. He found that a digital giving platform took a long time to gain traction. He noted that his church’s online presence was quite shallow and recommended making it deeper, with a better website and longer reach to encourage visitors who are interested in the heritage of the church building to also participate in and learn about its spirituality.
Revd Counsell suggested the building itself is both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of his church. He said that we tend to fail to think creatively enough about the use of the church building, and need to discover new purposes.
He advised against going online-only, saying that if we lose all our church buildings, future generations will blame us. We need to give the buildings future life in a different way. He suggested blending face-to-face and digital worship, noting that the online platform has attracted new people under lockdown, but that there is still value in sitting and worshipping in a sacred space.