How Methodists have responded in love and service during coronavirus - Cumbria

24 July 2020

In the second in a series of stories from around the Connexion we look at how churches in Cumbria have responded during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kirkby Stephen, Appleby and Tebay Circuit (KSAT) covers 300 square miles of the least densely populated area in England. Set between the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, this is hill farming country, with many dispersed rural communities: a rural idyll but with areas of often hidden deprivation. 

Ecumenical online worship

Churches in this area work closely together as mission communities  and this has continued during lockdown with online services for Sunday and also short mid-week prayers. Because of slow internet speeds services have not been live streamed but instead made available on the YouTube Channel for the Heart of Westmorland Mission Community.

Superintendent, the Revd Stephen Radford, says: “We have had up to 400 views per week which is more that you would expect on a Sunday in the churches. Colleagues, the Revd Stewart Fyfe and the Revd Andrew Sterling, have learnt very quickly how to edit videos and we are now offering a Bible study on Zoom. This is in addition to worshipping at an ecumenical Zoom service, hosted by the Anglicans, and the monthly family worship which ‘Families Together’ organise in Orton and Tebay.”

When asked if this online activity will shape the future, Stephen Radford, says, “We have analysed the data coming from our online worship – the flexibility seems to work well for families and we hope that now churches are reopening we will bring some of that learning into how we plan services in church.”

Deliveries of written KSAT Services are made to around 60 households who are not on the internet, on top of the 120 emails sent.

Feelings of isolation and increased foodbank use

Keeping in touch with people physically is not easy where there could be a 30 mile journey involved, but this has been achieved in many ways including with visiting nursing homes, to deliver laminated posters and the service sheets for residents to use, doorstep (and through the window) distanced chats and a drop in for tea at the manse front garden – ‘The Frisky Lamb Café’! – (which presently overlooks a field of new lambs).

Stephen Radford notes that his conversations with his human flock have become longer than they would have been after church and so relationships have deepened as a result. 

In many of these his conversations, Stephen has noted heightened anxiety and feelings of isolation amongst some, although he says that there is great resilience amongst the farming communities, for whom the period of lambing is the busiest time, as well as normally being an isolating one, coincided with the main period of lockdown.

However, foodbank use has grown significantly in recent months. The Upper Eden Foodbank  is a community and ecumenical initiative which has had excellent support from local businesses (including the Co-Op at Appleby) and groups (eg Rotary). This is an area where many live with fuel poverty so the NFU and local schools are involved with the foodbank in identifying families in need and ensuring that food gets to its destination.

Families that have had children at home, instead of school, because of lockdown and are now facing the summer holidays, as well as those where parents have been furloughed or facing redundancy, are able to secure weekly bags of food, for lunches, to give them much needed extra support. Sixty families, with children, are now being helped in this way.

While the churches and other community groups have been working hard to support families, Stephen is concerned that the pressure of isolation and financial worries may result in issues with mental health and relationship problems further down the line.

Graveside funerals and looking ahead to reopening of church buildings

While the church buildings have been closed and worship has gone online, funerals have often taken place at the graveside with social distancing and with family and friends attending via Zoom.

At the time of writing one church at Dufton has reopened for worship and others will follow in August and September. Local Preachers will return, in clustered groups, to avoid extensive travel. The communities of this corner of northern England have shown how adaptable they can be in a crisis and the strength of ecumenism on the ground.

We thank God for His strength and grace. ‘The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does’ (Psalm 145v13).